College Textbooks: Do You Get What You Pay For?

Teenage girl studying with textbooks looking unhappy
Teenage girl studying with textbooks looking unhappy

The age-old expression "you get what you pay for" is often used to explain away the skyrocketing cost of textbooks. Sure, prices may top $200 per book and the value may drop to pennies by the end of the semester, but it's all to ensure the material is of high quality to help students succeed -- or so the logic would go. But in a world where using free and open information has become a staple of everyday life, is "you get what you pay for" still true when it comes to textbooks?

According to the latest research, not anymore.

A new multi-institutional study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University looks at the academic outcomes of students assigned free, openly-licensed textbooks versus those assigned traditionally-published textbooks. What the study finds is the opposite of what folk wisdom tells us: expensive textbooks are not superior to free ones. In fact, the results show a striking trend that students assigned free, open textbooks do as well or better than their peers in terms of grades, course completion, and other measures of academic success.

If traditional textbooks are not producing better outcomes, then what exactly are students paying for?

Here's a breakdown of the results:

  • Course completion: In all of the courses studied, students who were assigned open textbooks were as likely or more likely to complete their course than those assigned traditional textbooks. In one course, the completion rate was remarkably 15 percentage points higher for students using open textbooks.
  • Grades: Students who were assigned open textbooks tended to have final grades equivalent to or better than those assigned traditional textbooks. In more than a quarter of the courses, students using open textbooks achieved higher grades, and only one course using open textbooks showed lower grades (which is at least partially explained by the course's significantly higher completion rate, which includes the grades of students who would have otherwise dropped out).
  • Credit load: Students who were assigned open textbooks took approximately 2 credits more both in the semester of the study and in the following semester. This is a sign that students are reinvesting money saved on textbooks into more courses, which can accelerate graduation times and potentially reduce debt.
  • Overall success: Overall, students in more than half of the courses that used open textbooks did better according to at least one academic measure used in the study, and students in 93% of these courses did at least as well by all of the measures.

The study is based on more than 16,000 students across 10 institutions, and is the largest and most rigorous study of its kind. Naturally, there are some limitations, most notably that the researchers cannot conclusively claim that textbooks are the sole cause of differences in student outcomes, since uncontrolled factors such as variation in teaching methods may have played a role. However, more than a dozen other studies have been published over the last five years that find a similar correlation between open textbooks and as-good-or-better student outcomes, which shows a definitive trend.

Hundreds of campuses across the country have already joined the movement for open educational resources, working to expand the use and creation of materials that can be freely used, adapted and shared. While there is still work to be done to develop models to support and sustain these efforts at scale, the evidence is clear that open models can be effective by the criteria that matters most: the success of students.

It's time to leave behind the idea of "you get what you pay for" for textbooks and start working toward the educational materials of the future, which can be free, open and effective.

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