Bridging the Opportunity Divide

This Oregon College Knocked Textbook Prices Down From $200 to $40 With One Move

September 17, 2019
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This Oregon College Knocked Textbook Prices Down From $200 to $40 With One Move
textbook, community college
Textbook prices have skyrocketed in the past decades. Chemeketa Press, an independent printing press, is selling books for less than $40. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A college saw its students paying exorbitant amounts for textbooks. Now the school offers books for less than $40.

Every semester, college students walk the aisles of their school’s bookstore. They wander between shelves of $200 math textbooks and psychology books more expensive than a month’s groceries, searching for copies they may never even open. 

From 1977 to 2015, the price of college textbooks skyrocketed 1,041%. Sixty-five percent of students reported not buying all required course reading because it was too expensive, according to a 2014 report for the Public Research Institute Groups. 

But when students step into the bookstore at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon, they find many books offered for less than $40. Those books are thanks to the college’s independently run Chemeketa Press.

Since its 2015 launch, the press has printed 33 titles and saved students more than $2.5 million.

In one case, a textbook for an art appreciation course — a class that helps students meet a humanities requirement— used to cost $200.

Today it costs $36.50. Not only are students saving money, but by using a textbook created by the instructor, they gain insight into local artists and a new definition of what art appreciation means.

The school’s administration set out to make sure the cost of a book never deterred someone from taking a class. In 2015, using grant funding and school support, the college opened the press. They collaborate with instructors to write the textbooks, and after students and faculty revise and edit, the final product is sent to print.

At community colleges, where students are more likely to be low-income, the money saved can influence student success and graduation rates.

Brian Mosher, the managing editor of Chemeketa Press, told NationSwell that he loves “the idea of comparing the money a student saves on a textbook with what they could do with that money instead.”

It might mean working fewer hours at a job or taking out smaller loans. For some, the money saved could be put toward taking an extra class, moving that student one step closer to graduation.

While cost savings was what launched Chemeketa Press, faculty and administration also saw it as an opportunity to create more effective books.  

Instead of jumping from chapter eight to chapter 23, then back to chapter 14, or using books filled with jargon and confusing syntax, instructors write books that follow their course outline. Classroom testing and evaluation can take years to complete in traditional publishing. For a Chemeketa Press book, it only takes a few months and revisions can be added when there’s a reprint. Instructors are paid for their time and have the chance to become published writers. 

“We’re not looking to change the way the class is taught, we’re looking to replace a book and teach the same class,” he said.

But Mosher said the instructors aren’t doing it for the compensation or author credit. They’re doing it to save their students money. 

“Most of the faculty who end up with their name on the cover of a book, that’s just a bonus,” Mosher said. “They’re saying they have passion for their students, they want their students to succeed, and they see the hardship of expensive textbooks.”

And the textbooks work. Through institutional research, Chemeketa Press compared the passing percentages of an intermediate algebra class. With the same instructor, one class used the traditional, $140 textbook and another used Chemeketa Press’ $36 book. 

Each class had the same passing rate, Mosher said. 

“This book can hold water next to [one from] the professional, big time, commercial publisher,” Mosher said. 

Professors can connect with Chemeketa Printing Press on its website, where five textbooks are available for purchase through its site. Chemeketa Press is also partnering with other colleges to help students save money by getting these books in their hands.

Mosher said the goal is to create a self-sustaining model that other community colleges across the nation can adopt. 

“That’s our long-term, big dream,” Mosher said. “We think any community college across the country can do this.”

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