OPINION: Lack of informational access continues to account for inequities in education

Zachary Clifton, Commentary writer

Across the United States, 13 million of the 19 million students in college report that the cost of a college textbook has prohibited them from purchasing one. Of that 13 million, over 12 million of them believe that not buying that textbook diminished their grade in that class.

The fact is, most college students will spend more on textbooks in their four years of college than they will spend on a meal plan for an entire academic year. In fact, on average, students will spend almost $6,000 on textbooks during their time in college.

But high costs are not the only prohibitive issue that these textbooks cause. Having textbooks that contain publicly funded research, being only accessed by people willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars is undemocratic and keeps inequities present in education.

In order to increase academic accessibility and ensure that students do not face additional systemic barriers, universities, research centers, publishers, and the federal government should work together in order to make academic textbooks and scholarly articles open access.

In recent years, open access to such information has led to vast advancements in many fields. Many groups have reported on the enhancements and ethics of having education and data as open access.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) is leading the charge and lobbying congress and other institutions toward open access adoption. SPARC cites that Europe loses nearly $10 billion annually as a result of not having fair or open access to research and data.

But it isn’t just global economies that are feeling the effects of our outdated educational practices. Every student in every classroom across the world is losing out on vital innovation in the classroom. A study conducted by the Open Education Group found that “93% of students who use OER do as well or better than those using traditional materials, since they have easy access to the content starting day one of the course.”

Open access to education and data is an issue that has vast effects in nearly every way imaginable to man. Open access is more ethical, better for students, and would add as an aid to the global economy. In fact, even the leaders of some of the largest textbook companies agree.

David Levin, the CEO of McGraw-Hill Education, stated that “Enrolling in college requires a significant financial investment from students and their families, and I understand the frustration they feel when, after signing up for years of loans, they see a charge for an expensive textbook appear on their credit card.”

Levin cites his proposed solution as the use of online resources and textbooks “Studies have shown that students using technologies designed to personalize the learning experience get better grades and have greater success completing their courses. And for the 50% of two-year college students and 20% of four-year college students taking remedial courses, these technologies can help them catch up with their peers and get back on track to an on-time degree.”

But Levin is only partially correct. While the expansion of textbooks to the internet does increase accessibility and lower costs, students are still faced with books that costs hundreds and thousands — even online.

However, sites like OpenStax are leading the way in making textbooks not only digitally accessible — rather, completely free and open access. OpenStax has worked to advance academic accessibility at an unprecedented rate. In fact, according to OpenStax “9 million students have used OpenStax books saving them nearly one billion dollars. Its books have been adopted in 6,900 schools and used in more than 100 countries. This spring, an estimated 3.2 million students and 24,000 faculty are using use the books — with the volume increasing by 50 to 100 percent every year.”

But OpenStax’s dedication to accessibility isn’t alone. Universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working to expand educational access as well. Since 2001, MIT has made a permanent commitment to openly publishing resources and information pertinent to almost all of its courses — a commitment that allows millions of global learners to access a world class education for free.

Open access relies, in part, on a collaborative effort between educators, researchers, and academics to publish under an open license — this means that industry experts and field practitioners can work together to provide students with textbooks and information that is practical and pertinent to their respective field.

This means that textbooks can be free online and around $10–40 when published in print — a vast improvement from the current state that often leaves students out of thousands of dollars.

If open access online education is more effective for students, more equitable for education, and a better, more cost effective option for college students, how can education be switched completely to this alternative format?

Well, educators, students, parents, and everyday citizens can take action to ensure this outcome for the future of education.

Students and schools can choose to rely on the hundreds of textbooks and courses that have already been made open access. Parents and educators can raise this issue to elected officials, school board members, and to members of university governing boards.

And everyday citizens can contact their elected officials in congress to pass The Affordable College Textbook Act — a measure backed by members of both chambers of congress.

The bill would save students billions in textbook costs and would ensure that the information in academia is made available to the public — a move that would no doubt increase informational equity.

The United States has the opportunity to build generational equity in education, ensure billions in savings for college students, and provide the public with access to information at an unprecedented rate.

For high school and college students alike, our country’s future is contingent upon their success. For members of our society, American democracy is incessantly aided by informational access.

In 2022, our society can choose to improve our society’s future and build our democracy to heights that are yet to be seen.

Commentary writer Zachary Clifton can be reached at [email protected].