Initiative saves Penn State Abington students more than $45,000 on textbooks

Affordable Course Content Faculty Fellowship

Melvin Gupton, assistant professor of corporate communication, saved each student in one of his courses about $120 by developing a free packet of materials in lieu of a traditional textbook.

Credit: Regina Broscius

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington students saved more than $45,000 this semester after seven faculty members redesigned courses to eliminate the need for textbook purchases while maintaining the integrity of the coursework. 

With support from the Affordable Course Content Faculty Fellowship funded by a Chancellor's Grant, the faculty adopted free course materials, revised their syllabi, and made changes to teaching practices. Each faculty member was supported in-person or remotely by a team of librarians and instructional designers. 

Books and supplies are estimated to cost each Abington student $1,840 per academic year, and nearly three-quarters of Abington students receive financial aid.

Christina Riehman-Murphy, reference and instruction librarian at Abington, said students should be able to afford to succeed in college. 

“It makes the classroom an uneven playing field when some can’t pay for the materials,” she said. “This is highly relevant to our students. If they need the LionShare food pantry, then it follows that they need affordable course content.”

Riehman-Murphy said one student came to the library because they couldn't afford the book for the last course they needed to graduate. The librarians were able to help the student through the emergency bookstore gift card program, but the only other option would have been to drop the course and delay graduation. 

“From speaking to others at Abington, we believe the situation is more common than we might like to think,” she said. “How many students don't ask for help? What choices are they having to make?”

One student, who didn't want to be identified, makes these difficult choices.

"I simply can't afford to buy the books, so I rely on copies of the textbooks that are in the library and material provided by my professor," she said.

The problem isn’t limited to Abington. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 in 10 students didn’t purchase a textbook because of the expense, and 1 in 5 has skipped or deferred a class due to the price of required resources.

Abington student at laptop

Through Open Educational Resources, Penn State Abington students are provided with course content ranging from textbooks to lecture notes. 

Credit: Regina Broscius

Faculty utilized Open Educational Resources, or OERs, that gave them the ability to customize course materials, creating a course packet instead of being bound to a traditional one-size-fits-all model, Riehman-Murphy said. It gives faculty more control over the quality of their course materials.

Melvin Gupton, assistant professor of corporate communication, saved each student in his CAS 204: Communication Research Methods course about $120. He developed a packet of book chapters and online academic articles while adhering to copyright rules. Other content was in the form of slides not from any specific source.

“I am loving my course, and the students are benefiting from having a no-cost resource experience,” he said. “I have asked students point-blank if they appreciate this format, and unanimously the hands go up in confirmation.”

Zack McLaughlin-Alcock, lecturer in mathematics, called the experience, which saved each of his students an average of $135, a major win. 

“I was able to find and integrate two open access textbooks and an open access computerized homework tool," he said. "We were able to connect curated problem-solving videos from other mathematics instructors on YouTube to supplement specific ideas and chapters.”

Students in one course taught by Rachael Eriksen Brown, assistant professor of mathematics education, saved an average of $75 each.

“In the past, sometimes grades went down for not completing homework because students did not purchase the textbook,” she said. 

And Vivian Hsu, assistant teaching professor of psychological and social sciences, said students in her introductory psychology course saved $149 each. 

Riehman-Murphy said Abington Chancellor Damian Fernandez has renewed that Affordable Course Content Faculty Fellowship for another year. 

“We will be looking forward to working with more faculty and more classes as this project grows,” she said. 

Elizabeth Nelson, reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Lehigh Valley, collaborated with Riehman-Murphy on this project when she worked at the Abington campus. 

Student in library

The Penn State Abington library keeps some textbooks on reserve so students may borrow them.

Credit: Dan Z. Johnson

What are Open Educational Resources (OERs)?

OERs are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and reshare them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation. 

Because this is a growing movement, not all disciplines, departments or courses have OER available yet that are suitable for their instructional needs. OER are often created by faculty for their own disciplines and then shared freely online through various collections. 

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st century public higher education within a world-class research university. With about 3,700 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 21 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics and more.