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Bicameral Act Promotes Federal Grants for OER

Five members of Congress have introduced a new law to encourage colleges and universities to try out or expand their use of open educational resources (OER). This the third time legislation for the "Affordable College Textbook Act" has surfaced, but the first time it has found support from members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

This evergreen issue continues to play in discussions about the affordability of college. According to the College Board, the average student budget for college books and supplies during the 2015-2016 academic year was $1,250. A survey done by public interest advocate U.S. PIRG found that two-thirds of students (65 percent) chose not to buy a textbook because of the cost, even though almost all of them worried it would negatively affect their grade.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Education would set up a competitive grant program that would fund the creation and expansion of the use of open textbooks in higher education. Special consideration for the funding would go to those applicants that "demonstrate the greatest potential" for producing textbooks "that are of the highest quality"; that stand the best chance of being easily used and adapted by instructors; that address the highest enrollment courses; and that are created or adopted in partnership with other organizations that could help promote and distribute the books.

The act would expect the materials created with the grant money to be made freely available to anybody else who wanted to use them. It would also require schools that accept funding to complete a report on how effective the program was in helping students save on textbooks and require the General Accounting Office to provide Congress with a report at the three-year mark examining pricing trends of college textbooks.

One vocal supporter of the proposal is Daniel Williamson, the managing director of Rice University's nonprofit OpenStax, which produces and distributes numerous open textbooks. "A grant program is a phenomenal step toward more policies that improve student access and incentivize the use of [OER], Williamson said in a prepared statement. "As our government leaders look for ways to solve the college affordability problem, it's critical we closely examine the impact of free, quality, openly licensed resources."

Williamson added that the open textbook model is "proven." Currently, he said, 1.5 million students are using OpenStax textbooks during 2017-2018 academic year, saving an estimated $145 million. "A fiscal policy that encourages instructors and institutions to use OER and embrace the freedoms that they afford — access never expiring, opportunities to customize, the ability to integrate with technology platforms — could help improve college affordability and provide savings for students across the U.S. well into the billions," he asserted.

Many organizations, from the American Association of Community Colleges to SPARC and U.S. PIRG, are offering their support for the program. However, prospects for the latest legislative effort look no more promising than previous attempts. Neither house's measure currently has public Republican backing.

Congressional support for the act currently comes from Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN) and Angus King (I-ME) and Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO-02) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ-09).

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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