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?

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence