Home Online Education Access and Affordability Why Don’t More Institutions Offer Free Textbooks to Students?
Why Don’t More Institutions Offer Free Textbooks to Students?

Why Don’t More Institutions Offer Free Textbooks to Students?


Last week, I read an EdSurge article about some colleges providing free textbooks to students. EdSurge reporter Nadia Tamez-Robledo wrote that undergrads spent an average of $1,240 for textbooks during the 2020-2021 school year. The number was $220 higher for students attending two-year colleges.

Some colleges are participating in Barnes and Noble’s First Day Complete program, where the college pays for the costs of textbooks. Ms. Tamez-Robledo writes that “thousands” of students are not paying for textbooks this fall, thanks to programs like First Day Complete.

I tweeted a link to the article with the comment “and APUS has been doing this for undergrads since 2001.” I am extremely proud of the foresight of American Public University System (APUS) to implement a policy of providing free textbooks to undergraduate students through a textbook grant.

In its initial years, the Internet was in its nascency, and APUS distributed syllabi and textbooks to students via UPS and U.S. mail. Students were required to connect with their professors once a week via email or phone. In 1998, APUS contracted with uCompass to provide a Learning Management System (LMS) and by 2000, mandated that all courses operate online through the LMS.

Textbooks were distributed through the school, but in 2001, a contract was signed with MBS (a Barnes and Noble subsidiary) to ship textbooks directly to each student. The costs of these undergraduate textbooks were covered by a textbook grant from American Military University (AMU, later joined by American Public University to form American Public University System).

Our founder, Major James P. Etter, enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school and served in Vietnam. After returning home from his enlistment, Jim Etter attended and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He decided to return to the Marines as an aviation officer.

When Jim Etter founded AMU, AMU only offered master’s degrees, which typically enrolled officers. After adding undergraduate degrees in 1995, he believed that the cost of textbooks dissuaded some students from enrolling, particularly if they were enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines.

Jim Etter shared with me and others in APUS management that he lived “paycheck to paycheck” when he was an enlisted Marine. Based on that experience, he believed that AMU would be a top choice for enlisted servicemembers if we were able to provide textbooks to students. In 2001, the Board of AMU approved management’s request to fund textbook grants to all undergraduate students who maintained a minimum GPA of 2.0.

Adding the cost of supporting undergraduates through textbook grants forced our academic leadership to focus on finding ways to reduce textbook costs. Initially, our contract allowed our book vendor, MBS, to provide used textbooks. Later, we negotiated contracts with each publisher based on the volume of textbooks purchased.

More recently, we asked our faculty to search for Open Educational Resources (OER) for each course. All those activities reduced the cost of textbooks to APUS who has funded the textbook grant program for 20 years.

If every college and university in America agreed to cover the cost of textbooks, the costs of those textbooks would clearly decrease. In addition, the creation and utilization of OER would increase.

I am proud of the 20-year commitment of APUS to provide textbooks to undergraduates through a textbook grant. That commitment has cost APUS approximately $150 million since 2001. The textbook costs to the students would have been higher. It’s clearly made a difference to our students by reducing their overall education costs and their student loans, and free textbooks contribute to the higher-than-average persistence of our undergraduates.

Several years ago, APUS academic leadership asked our deans, program directors, and faculty to focus on replacing graduate courses’ textbooks with comparable OER wherever available. When an entire master’s degree had all of its courses converted from textbooks to OER, we referred to them as “Z degrees,” representing “zero textbook costs” degrees. As of this writing, APUS has less than 40 courses at the master’s level that require hard copy textbooks and the project to convert as many courses as possible continues.

With the prevalence of OER, I challenge every college and university president to eliminate the costs of textbooks to their undergraduate and graduate students as soon as it’s practical. Inevitably, it’s the students who benefit from this type of program, so why shouldn’t students be our number one priority?

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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