Don’t Scrap the Textbooks Yet

Open educational resources have their merits, but better cost-saving alternatives exist.

In August 2023, West Texas A&M University announced that it will stop requiring students to purchase textbooks in order to offset the soaring costs of higher education. Instead, the university will rely largely on open educational resources (OER), which are typically in the public domain and are thus free to download. The widespread use of these resources raises a rather important question for the future of higher education: Could a mass reliance on OER harm students and scholars?

Economically speaking, OER serve as a much-needed panacea for college students, who have experienced a 1,041-percent increase in textbook prices since 1977. Given ever-rising tuition prices, it seems reasonable for colleges to save students hundreds of dollars a year on books and supplies. Yet there is a very real possibility that this kindness may end up harming students in the long run.

For one thing, there is no guarantee that these OER will be of equal quality to the paid textbooks currently being used by schools like West Texas A&M. Many OER databases allow any person to create an account and publish his or her work, which can create a Wikipedia-esque inaccuracy problem on a platform intended for educational use. A switch to OER could thus endanger students intellectually by exposing them to educational materials that may contain misinformation.

Textbook-related kindness may end up harming students in the long run.Moreover, there is the question of whether OER materials can assess students’ mastery of information as deftly as textbooks. Within textbooks, students typically have access to an internally consistent set of learning materials and quizzes, whereas OER provide a decentralized basin of texts and worksheets. These could produce uneven educational outcomes.

Aside from any learning-related concerns, there is a real possibility that a broad switch to OER could hamper future academic scholarship. Professors receive various forms of compensation for their work, ranging from salaries to grants, but they can also profit from publishing their scholarship as books. Unfortunately for such professors, widespread adoption of OER could deprive them of money by offering students a free alternative. This could obviously have a trickle-down effect on the quality and quantity of academic work.

The counterargument, of course, is that OER greatly expand access to educational materials by allowing students to learn from anywhere in the world, for free, as long as they are connected to the internet. This empowers students to take charge of their educational journeys without requiring them to invest anything more than their tuition dollars. OER also provide a more flexible trove of information, which allows teachers to pull from more resources than a single, static textbook.

Tallying up these pros and cons, it may appear that the debate over OER is at a standstill. There are certainly solid arguments for and against them, but I wonder if either side has considered an obvious alternative. If universities truly want to lower textbook (or other) costs, they should redirect wasteful spending.

Whether it be via gaudy DEI offices or “bougie dorms,” universities are no strangers to throwing around money in an effort to attract students and donors to their campuses. Instead of spending $14 million renovating an Italian monastery or $30 million on DEI programming, as the Universities of Oklahoma and Michigan did, respectively, schools could use their deep coffers to pay for one of the few things their students actually need—textbooks. After all, colleges are first and foremost institutions of higher learning.

Sherman Criner is a sophomore at Duke University studying public policy, history, and political science.