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CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions Initiative Saves Students $77 Million Every Year

Alisia Ruble

The CSU continues to close the equity divide by providing free and low-cost learning resources and tools to foster student success, regardless of income.

Two smiling college students balancing laptops on their laps.
​​​The pandemic amplified existing equity gaps between underserved students and their peers, including the cost of learning materials. The CSU has responded by increasing the number of courses using low- or no-cost learning materials through Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) to provide equitable access to education and improve retention.

AL$ uses a combination of Open Educational Resources (OER), library materials, digital or customized textbooks, and faculty-authored materials that, when combined, save students across California $77 million annually. Since the launch of the program, CSU students have saved nearly $390 million. 

By reducing CSU student course material expenses, more students acquire the course materials they need to succeed and benefit from their learning experience. Helping students avoid financial barriers allows them to earn a degree sooner and is a key component of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025.

Campuses offer several cost-saving options for students. Campus libraries maintain licenses with publishers to provide students access to free eBooks. Campus bookstores have relationships with publishers to get cheaper rates for students. And many faculty members have opted into the Immediate Access program, which offers students free access to the digital textbook from the first day of class. Students then have the choice to purchase the physical textbook or continue to use the digital version at a greatly discounted price. Repositories like MERLOT and COOL4ED, which are managed by the CSU, also provide access to curated online learning and support materials.

Nearly 31,000 course sections have been converted to zero cost course materials (ZCCM) course sections since 2018—when data was first collected—across the 23 campuses, with an additional 1,323 courses in 2020 over the previous year. 

Over the past year, the CSU provided training and course design help to more than 17,000 faculty members. In doing so, administrators presented participating faculty members with options for low- and no-cost learning materials and helped them implement them into curricula. 

Stephanie Frame, a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages at San Diego State, took advantage of the campus’ Course Design​ Institute this past spring to redesign her Linguistics 305W course to be fully online this summer. Frame was able to incorporate zero-cost learning materials into the course thanks in part to help from SDSU librarians.  

“They showed examples of OER and efficient ways to search for materials through their website, including a tool that searches multiple OER repositories at once,” says Frame, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in library sciences at San José State. “Librarians play a huge role in the adoption of OER and discounted materials by curating options and helping faculty find the best materials for their courses.”

Thanks to funding from the CSU Chancellor’s Office, campuses continue to expand AL$ programs, including CSU Monterey Bay and Cal State San Bernardino, which reported saving more than 10,000 students nearly $2 million on textbook costs over the life of the program. In addition to the savings, faculty at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo found that students were more engaged with the material. 

“My students are grateful that they have access to all the materials for free, and in turn, they are much more engaged, conversations in the classroom are more dynamic, and their comprehension of the material is exceptional,” said Sadie Johann, a lecturer in the English Department.

CSU Channel Islands was recently highlighted for its part in the OER movement by the Michelson 20MM Foundation, which has awarded the campus grants to continue its work. Since launching in 2016, Ope​nCI has benefited more than 44,000 enrollments, saved students over $5 million, and introduced the CSU’s first zero-textboo​k-cost majors (e.g., “Z-Majors”).

Use of free and affordable academic resources is also linked to better student outcomes. A study examining 20 courses participating in CSU San Marcos’s Cougars Affordable Learning Materials Project (CALM) found a decrease in withdrawal percentage for these courses after implementation. The study also found grades were slightly improved and the DFWI percentage, or the percentage of students in a course or program who get a D or F grade or withdraw from a course, also decreased after implementation. Additional studies on student efficacy are planned for the future.​ 

Louis Tran, a senior at San José State, has been working with SJSU to increase awareness of affordable learning materials as a student ambassador. At the beginning of each semester, he and his fellow ambassadors connect with students to provide individualized help finding affordable materials for the classes they’re enrolled in. Tran, who is majoring in applied mathematics with a concentration in statistics, has also helped create videos using student testimonials as another way of raising awareness for AL$ among faculty members.

“I come from a low-income background and have to work two jobs to afford going to college, so even $100 in savings makes a huge difference,” says Tran. “I know students who don’t buy the required materials or share with others, and it hurts their grades. When we see faculty make the switch, it shows they care about our personal success.”

AL$ coordinators have also developed ways to raise awareness of the program among faculty and facilitate adoption of free materials, like faculty awards and recognition programs. Cal Poly SLO recently held a virtual ceremony to celebrate members of their community championing affordable options, and the Chancellor’s Office offers digital certificates and email signature blocks for those who participate in OER training programs.

“Through the collective efforts of the entire CSU community, the university is removing barriers to academic success and providing more equitable opportunities for achievement for students from all backgrounds,” says Leslie Kennedy, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Technology Services. 

AL$ is just one way the CSU is helping reduce the cost of attending college for students. The university recently launched a new technology initiative, CSUCCESS, which provides new first-year and transfer students at eight participating campuses with a new iPad bundle, putting the tools for success in their hands. And during the 2020-21 academic year, campuses distributed more than 21,000 laptops and tablets and 10,000 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, totaling more than $18 million in new equipment and several million more in existing equipment for student use.

To learn more about how the CSU is leading the charge in reducing educational costs for students, visit the Affordable Learning Solutions​ website.
Graduation Initiative; Student Success