The Tyranny of Textbooks: The Need for Systemic Change in Student-Facing Resources at Community Colleges

By Jeremy Broyles

I have taught at the college level now for more than a decade. That number still seems a bit surreal; surely I am not that old. During those ten-plus years, I have had the opportunity to teach all over the country at various institutions. I have taught in lecture halls with seating for scores students at universities with enrollments clearing fifteen thousand. I have also taught in rooms designed for no more than twelve occupants, and even then only half the roster would attend. What I appreciate about the community college is the opportunity created for instructors to deliver personalized education to each student who attends. There is, after all, a reason I have not returned to the university setting. Community colleges can provide a level of service the sprawling universities simply cannot match.

The key, of course, is getting students to our campuses and in our classrooms. The community colleges of Nebraska cannot compete from a marketing, brand recognition, or resource standpoint with the likes of UNL, UNK, UNO, Hastings College, Doane University, etc. Such institutions can outspend us in the recruitment of students. Our great advantage, however, is in undercutting the bigger players. We can offer students an education on par with both the state and private institutions at a fraction of the cost. Anything that (A) precludes a community college faculty member from delivering that aforementioned education or (B) adds cost to a student’s access to the community college effectively sabotages the institution in question. My concerns in regards to these two specific points drove me to research textbooks and the effects they are having on student access and student success.

The Cost-Prohibitive Nature of Textbooks for the Community College Student
A common refrain in higher education of late is data-driven decision making. Data is undoubtedly a useful tool, but I believe it does not necessarily tell the entire story. I would argue this is especially true in education in which so much is built upon relationships—student-teacher, student-student, teacher-teacher, teacher-administrator, etc.—thus making the use of data to the exclusion of all else a grossly limited even negligent perspective. For myself, then, I have always preferred the term “research-driven.” Research allows for the incorporation of data; however, it also provides the opportunity for us—individually and collectively—to learn from our own experiences as well as those of colleagues globally.

Both research and data tell the same story regarding the escalating price of textbooks:

Over the past few years, the costs of textbooks have outstripped the rate of tuition increase. For many community college students, textbook prices are often cost-prohibitive, preventing many students from continuing their studies.

Perhaps the great debate of the current community college both in Nebraska and nationally is this: institution of access or institution of success. There is no reason those two cannot coexist. Before we can have the latter, however, we must ensure the former. We run the risk of shutting off access to a significant population of students if textbook costs outpace a student’s financial aid and/or willingness to pay.

Avoiding the Examples of For-Profit Colleges and Universities
It is clear Nebraska community college students stand to benefit if textbook costs can be minimized. Other institutions have come to the same realization about their own futures and those of their student populations. Part of the power of academia in general is in the sharing of information. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, so the old adage goes. One strategy currently being employed is in the absorption of the cost of textbooks directly into the tuition for the course itself. This particular template has been adopted by the University of Phoenix amongst others. I want to caution against adopting any policy—financial, educational, or otherwise—espoused by the University of Phoenix or any other for-profit institution. To begin, it is clear Nebraska community colleges bear little resemblance to the for-profits of the world. As author Kevin Kinser reminds us, “All for-profits, including the University of Phoenix, have a business model that is supported almost exclusively by student tuition.” Not to rely on adages, but one concerning a square peg and a round hole comes to mind.

Beyond the prodigious differences in educational models employed by Nebraska community colleges and the University of Phoenix, there exists a body of empirical evidence that for-profit schools burden students with crippling debt at exponentially higher rates than public institutions while concordantly graduating those same students at significantly lower rates. Statistics indicate that, on average, the ten for-profit schools with the largest entering classes of first-time, full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students graduate only one in five students. Remove the word “bachelor’s” from the previous sentence and what is left is an apt description of the type of student community colleges actively seek. I would hope there is no one in higher education who would be satisfied with a graduation rate of twenty percent. Moreover, I believe the community college as an entity is genuinely concerned with ensuring students—regardless of whether or not they graduate—leave the school without suffocating debt. This may not be the case with for-profit colleges and universities as Lynch et. al. cautions, “If there is one thing the for-profits can virtually guarantee their students, it’s years and years of student loan debt.” By any measure, this is not the example that should be followed.

The Tyranny of Textbooks
How is it textbooks have gotten a pass for all these decades? I do not mean to marginalize the efforts of any of my fellow instructors—a portion of whom have devoted tremendous time, energy, and resources into creating a text designed to enhance the student experience. Still, I am the curious type and cannot help wondering. Textbooks are often required of students, carry exorbitant costs, and typically update every two to three years to render previous editions unusable. This, in turn, neatly eliminates the used book market which, perhaps not coincidentally, is significantly more cost effective for college students. I’ve looked for a gentler, more diplomatic term, but let’s call a duck a duck. The textbook industry strikes me as a racket targeting the very people we are trying to serve: students.

Based on my research—a small portion of which I have tried to share within this piece—and my experience teaching at the community college level in Nebraska, I believe there may well be a wonderfully simple solution. Why not get rid of textbooks? Perhaps more accurately, why not redefine what student-facing classroom materials are required and how students can access those materials? Creative commons, public domain materials, open educational resources (OER)—the digital world offers a veritable educational buffet from which we as educators can now choose. Why is it, then, that given all these options, the vast majority of classes at community colleges nationwide still rely on traditional textbooks as the cornerstone of the course?

Selecting a textbook to offer up as “the textbook” for a given course is one the most maddeningly frustrating elements of my job as a teacher. I refuse to believe I am alone in this sentiment. The research process, the meetings, the politicking—I doubt many of us became teachers because of our eagerness to compare and contrast textbooks. I certainly didn’t. And the results are always disappointing. There exists this strange regression toward the mean in the textbook selection process when politicking is eschewed—or when it fails outright. Colleagues, attempting to treat each other collegially, often compromise. Decisions move toward the center—a book that is not the cheapest but not the most expensive, not the most engaging but not the most stifling, etc. The unfortunate result is that the vast majority of instructors leave such selection processes with a textbook they do not want. When parties with differing criteria, teaching styles, preferences, opinions, experiences, educational backgrounds, and personalities move toward a middle ground, it simply ensures that no one is satisfied. However, options made available to each faculty member and his/her unique criteria, teaching style, preferences, opinions, experiences, educational background, and personality all but ensure an increase in the quality of the product given to the student by the individual instructor.

The potential benefit to students from the perspective of cost is also obvious. Allow me to use myself as an example. In the fall of 2016, I piloted a handful of OER materials within each of my four classes. Students who took my classes were required to buy nothing. If they were, however, what would the numbers look like?

Table 1 – Textbook Savings for Students, Fall 2016


Class                             Enrollment             Price of Class Text          Dollars Saved

R/W Essentials                      40                                    $75.25                                 $3,010

Composition                           24                                    $40                                       $960

Intro to Literature                 11                                     $85                                       $935

Totals                      75                                     —                                       $4,905


*Figures represent lowest-priced option and do not account for availability.

The figures above total nearly five thousand dollars, at a minimum, that students did not have to spend simply because a textbook was not required. I am but a single teacher. Imagine if a percentage of teachers at all campuses made the same commitment. The savings compound. A look into a course like SPCH 1110: Public Speaking at Central Community College reveals some staggering numbers. Students on the Hastings Campus alone can expect to save $25,500 per year because they do not have to buy a textbook for the course. Again, this is for a single course offered by one instructor.

Additionally, this says nothing of unintended yet warmly welcomed ancillary benefits of OER or no textbook options. Imagine the marketing potential for a college if it could advertise that x percent of the school’s course offerings required little or no money for textbooks. Imagine the environmental impact through the lens of sustainability given the reduced need for paper and the associated energy consumption necessary to create textbooks. The benefits are many and significant. The potential risks or drawbacks are miniscule.

Miniscule, however, is not the same as nonexistent. I am not so naïve as to believe that I have somehow stumbled upon an impossibly easy fix to an undoubtedly gnarly problem. There exists multiple thorny issues including but not limited to teaching materials for adjunct instructors and the sometimes symbiotic/sometimes parasitic relationship between a college and an attached third-party bookstore. My own anecdotal experience illustrates other potential concerns as well. The support I received at the administrative level during my OER-piloted courses can be diplomatically described as tepid. There is an inherent anxiety often stemming from unfamiliarity concerning open educational resources. Though I understand those hesitations, I believe it exactly because of them—at least in part—that we as educators need to push for a radical reconstruction of how we go about teaching the students we serve.

Earlier, I used one my favorite words to describe education: dynamic. Learning should always be a dynamic process. When it is, students actively engage with the subject material. Engagement begets persistence given the student is willing, even eager to connect with the learning opportunities. And a persistent student is one who graduates, earns a job in his/her selected career field, and, ultimately, advocates on behalf of the institution he/she attended. That is the power of the word “dynamic,” and it cannot be overstated.

It has been business as usual on too many community college campuses for far too long now. Our great strength is also our glaring weakness. We are smaller, and that makes us more vulnerable. The nationwide two percent decline in community college enrollment, which is now persisting to the point of trend as opposed to statistical outlier, may seem insignificant. After all, what affect could two percent possibly have? I’m certain we know all too well the effects of that two percent which are only exacerbated in a state like Nebraska given its static population. As institutions scramble a bit at the administrative level to contact, recruit, and ultimately enroll students, I remain steadfast in my belief that faculty must and will be the catalyst by which we see real and significant change—not only in the numbers describing access, but in the numbers telling the stories of student success. But we cannot plant our feet. We cannot become rigid. Rigidity is the mortal enemy of dynamic. Classes can be made more dynamic right now to the benefit of all. Students can begin saving money right now, again, to the benefit of all. We have the opportunity—right now—to create the dynamic. I for one genuinely hope we capitalize on it.

About the Author:

Jeremy Broyles’ formative years were spent reading hand-me-down science fiction novels often missing covers. After that, he was a goner. He studied English at Doane College, earned a Master’s from Northern Arizona University, and graduated from the MFA program at Wichita State University in 2011. Since then, he has worked as a professor in Nebraska, and his love affair with the written word has yet to cool. His work has been published in such journals as Mikrokosmos, The MacGuffin, and Santa Clara Review. His writing can also be found online at Sliver of Stone. Find him on Tumblr and share your own stories. After all, nothing in this world matters more than the stories we tell.

Staley, David J. and Dennis A. Trinkle. “The Changing Landscape of  Higher Education.” Education Review, vol. 46, no. 1, 2011, p. 28.

“What Phoenix Doesn’t Teach Us about For-Profit Higher Education.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, vol. 38, no. 4, 2006.

Lynch, Mamie et. al. “Subprime Opportunity: The Unfulfilled Promise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities.” Higher Education, Nov. 2010, p. 4.

“Subprime Opportunity: The Unfulfilled Promise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities.” Higher Education, Nov. 2010, p. 6.

Manzer, Jillian. “Re: Textbook vs. OER info.” Received by Rachael Robinson-Keilig, 26 Sep. 2016.