Story Affordability

How to Graduate Without Spending a Dime on Books

Hazel Kelly

Faculty across the CSU are making it more affordable to get a degree with the introduction of no-cost digital textbooks and quality educational resources online.

Fewer students will have to reach for those expensive textbooks as open educational resources (OER) continue to grow at CSU campuses. Photo courtesy of CSU Fullerton


​Imagine if you could go through four years of college without paying for a single textbook. That dream is becoming a reality for some CSU students, including those in two new undergraduate programs at California State University Channel Islands this fall.

Called "Z-Majors," (the "z" refers to zero dollars required for textbooks), the new CSU Channel Islands undergraduate programs — one in communication, the other in early childhood studies — use only free, readily available resources such as online books and dynamic multimedia, avoiding the usually hefty cost of purchasing or renting academic textbooks.

CSUCI is the first CSU campus to offer undergraduate Z-Majors, but faculty at every CSU campus are using open educational resources (OER) to lower students' costs, and many are beginning to implement zero-cost pathways, including CSU Fullerton's OpenFullerton, Humboldt State's Sustainable Learning and CSU Northridge's Affordable Learning Solutions.

CSU faculty across the CSU saved students $39 million in textbook costs in 2017-18. NEXT year, that number SHOULD grow to $50 million. — DR. Leslie Kennedy, AL$ Director, CSU Chancellor's office

As part of the CSU's systemwide Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) Initiative, campus programs are funded by grants from the CSU Chancellor's Office and Assembly Bill 7989, the California College Textbook Affordability Act of 2015. All CSU campuses have an AL$ coordinator who works with a committee to raise awareness and provide resources for faculty to redesign courses with high-quality, no-cost materials.

"In 2017-18, faculty across the CSU saved their students $39 million in textbook costs, and I am projecting that number to be $50 million next year," says Leslie Kennedy, Ed.D., director of the AL$ Initiative at the CSU Chancellor's Office.

"This program levels the playing field for students, providing them equitable access to course materials on the first day of class," says Kennedy, pointing to a recent study that showed first-day access to materials resulted in higher grades and improved retention.

"The more faculty receive support for authoring, locating and incorporating OER into their coursework, the more CSU students will have potent opportunities for academic success," she says, adding that continued grants and funding ensure the growth of the program.

What Are Open Educational Resources?

Often taking the place of traditional textbooks, free resources can include a combination of materials, including:

  • Campus library-owned textbooks that are copyrighted but which students access for free
  • Journal articles, which are copyrighted, but free to students via campus library subscriptions
  • Government documents, which are typically in the public domain (not subject to copyright law)
  • YouTube videos, which may be open, copyrighted or have limited-use permissions
  • OER, which are openly licensed — usually by Creative Commons — materials that can be used, shared and remixed for free

CSU-maintained OER sites include the California Open Online Library for Education (COOL4ED), the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) and Skills Commons. Faculty and lecturers can use any of these resources, which range from full courses and textbooks to test banks and software.

"OER is a great way of sharing knowledge that we just haven't had before," says Jaime Hannans, Ph.D., R.N., associate professor of nursing at CSUCI and faculty coordinator for openCI, the CSUCI initiative. She adds that with OER, educators provide source attribution for any works they use in a course, but there's no licensing fee. 

Reshaping Coursework

Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D., executive director of Teaching and Learning Innovations and the campus AL$ administrator at CSU Channel Islands, explains that while faculty have been incorporating alternative low- and no-cost learning resources into their coursework for years, she's now encouraging more faculty to spend time redesigning coursework to incorporate free resources.

Dr. Leafstedt, along with faculty coordinators Dr. Hannans and Jacob Jenkins, Ph.D., CSUCI associate professor of Communication, created an openCI Ambassador Program, in which they use a small stipend to incentivize faculty to spend a semester on a course redesign that uses only open resources. To date, 60 CSUCI faculty members have taken up the challenge, Leafstedt says.

Since the launch of openCI, "we've had an overwhelmingly positive response from faculty," Leafstedt says. "If there are equal or better resources out there, [faculty] do not want to have students pay for textbooks," adding that many students are working full-time to get through school and taking out loans. "Our faculty wants to help save students a bit of the unpredictable costs of college."

The enthusiasm of CSU CI staff is encouraging, but it still takes time to redesign a course using OER materials. And, "as you get into the upper-division courses, there is less packaged OER material available, so it's going to be more work to pull in all the resources," notes Leafstedt.

At least the perception is changing that "free" means "lower in quality," says Hannans.  "I think we've gotten away from that," since OER textbooks and journals are peer-reviewed, just like their print counterparts.

"We have found, without a doubt, that they are quality," she says. "We're improving the quality of teaching and learning by using these digital and alternative materials."

How to Save Six Grand

"The average amount that students spend on textbooks throughout their entire undergraduate experience at CI is $6,206.67," says Jenkins. (That figure is  based on an average cost of $140 per textbook, per class, combined with the average number of units taken by undergraduates.)

For students who must work their way through college, not having to pay for textbooks can be a game-changer. Jacobs explains that many of CSUCI's students are first-generation and Pell Grant recipients who hold down a job while going to school.

At CSU Northridge, the Matador AL$ Award saved more than $200,000 in textbook costs for more than 1,720 students during the 2017-18 academic year, says Yi Ding, AL$ coordinator and online instructional design librarian at CSU Northridge's Oviatt Library. "We anticipate 1,779 students benefiting from these courses in the next academic year," she says.

In addition to cost savings, OER improves digital literacy. Hannans explains that open course materials help teach students how to access materials and find reputable sources. "It opens up the process of how students are researching and finding things. It changes the dynamic and is more supportive [of] what they'll be doing in their future jobs."



​​​​​​Textbooks by the Numbers

CSU Channel Islands is conducting a campus-wide student survey to explore the links between textbook cost/use and student success, retention and graduation rates, especially among Historically Underserved Student Groups (HUGs), explains Jacobs. To date, over 700 students have taken the survey, indicating early on that students often prefer and, in some cases perform better, with free and online course materials.


Percent of CSUCI students surveyed who reported they found free/online materials easy or easier to use than traditional textbooks


Percent of CSUCI students surveyed who said they were either satisfied or more satisfied with free/online course materials


 Percent of CSUCI students surveyed who reported performing either as well or better in a course that used free/online materials


Maintaining college affordability is another example of the CSU's ongoing efforts to increase graduation rates for all CSU students while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps through Graduation Initiative 2025

*Update: Since this story was published, CSUCI has launched an additional undergraduate Z-Major and is set to launch the CSU's first Z-Track and Z-Credential programs in 2020.

Access; Student Success