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To address cost of college for students, Valley campuses experiment with zero-cost or discounted textbooks

Hailee Guerra loads up a plate with orange chicken at Panda Express.
Rachel Livinal
Hailee Guerra loads up a plate with orange chicken at Panda Express.

HANFORD, Calif. — On a recent Friday evening, Hailee Guerra scooped up the last pieces of glistening fried chicken from a metal pan. She works the drive thru window at a Panda Express in Hanford.

She said the tangy smell of orange chicken permeates her clothes at the end of each shift, but she has to endure it to help pay for college.

As far as costs go, there’s the tuition, and then there’s textbooks. Books cost Guerra about $200 per semester, she says. She recently transferred to Fresno State and she was shocked when the first bill arrived.

“They wanted all of my money. They wanted it all,” Guerra, 20, said.

According to a survey sent out by the California Student Aid Commission, half of California college students pay $200 or more for course materials each semester.

But in the San Joaquin Valley, colleges are trying a variety of ways to reduce these costs. While some programs have eased the struggle, others may be more hassle than they're worth, some students say.

A degree without a textbook?

Before attending Fresno State, Guerra was a student at Lemoore College. There, she was enrolled in what’s called a “zero-textbook-degree”.

It's one of more than 20 degrees and certificates at Lemoore College that use open educational resources like e-books, articles and videos – instead of textbooks.

Lemoore College is one of four community colleges in the Valley that have at least one transferable textbook-free Associates Degree.

James Preston, the president of Lemoore College, said students used to forego or delay getting a textbook because of the price tag, but with these types of programs, that’s changing.

“By having a zero textbook cost course, every student in that course has the same starting point, has the same access to materials from the first day of the semester,” Preston said.

This approach to course materials has grown nationwide.

The non-profit Achieving the Dream found zero-textbook programs at 38 colleges saved students an average of $4 million dollars a year. Achieving the Dream is one of the organizations behind a textbook-free degree at Lemoore College for an elementary education degree.

But while these courses have helped students, college officials say the early roll out can still be met with hurdles for those coming up with courses or degrees.

California State University, Bakersfield, announced its first zero-cost textbook degree last fall.

Elaine Correa, a professor and chair of the Human Development and Child Adolescent and Family Studies Department, said it takes a lot of work from professors to create just one textbook-free course, let alone a whole degree.

For the Child, Adolescent and Family Studies degree, it took six years.

Correa says it's time-consuming to create a course because professors must make sure their new curriculum is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and copyright. It also takes time to create presentations and material for the class, as many teachers normally pull material from the textbooks they choose.

The program at CSU Bakersfield benefitted from grants from the CSU chancellor’s office in 2018 and 2019. That allowed the university to provide professors with stipends in order to create the class.

Correa says the more niche the degree, the more trouble, too.

Tracey Salisbury, an associate professor and chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at CSU Bakersfield said her department has agreed to keep costs down, but won’t be able to adopt any zero-textbook courses. She said because the degree is so new, there aren’t enough available resources to create a full class curriculum.

Some colleges stick to real textbooks, at a discount

While some colleges experiment with eliminating the cost of textbooks altogether, others are simply trying to bring down the costs.

At the start of the spring semester, Adriana Ramirez went to check out her books from the Merced College bookstore. She thought she was getting them through a program the college uses called Follett Access. The program is meant to help students save money on textbooks and is used by several Valley colleges including Fresno Pacific University and UC Merced.

But some students have run into confusion with the program. Ramirez hadn’t realized she opted out of using the program, so she didn’t receive her books that day, she says.

Colleges that participate in the Follett Access program automatically enroll students in the program, in exchange for discounted textbooks. Students are then charged for the books through their student fees.

Merced College participates in one portion of the program that runs under the name “equitable access.” That means for every student at their college, they charge students $25 per unit to participate in the program.

By having a zero textbook cost course, every student in that course has the same starting point, has the same access to materials from the first day of the semester.
James Preston

All students are automatically opted into the program, but the price of textbooks during a semester varies. Since a typical course is three units, a student at Merced College would pay roughly $75 in textbooks for one class and $375 for five classes. The price is a flat rate, and would not change if a particular class doesn’t use a textbook or uses a cheaper textbook.

At Merced College, students have a two week period from the start of the semester to opt out of the program. But opting out means they won’t get discounts for any books through the bookstore at all.

While confusion exists in the opt-out process, some students have reported problems because they were opted in.

“Some of the confusion arises when students don't know that Follett exists so they come in, they're already in, but yet they go and spend money for textbooks that they already paid for through Follett,” said Bob Davies, a geology professor at Merced College.

Davies said students have mixed opinions and – from what he’s observed – only first-year students use the program. After that, he says, they “do the math” and usually find books cheaper online or from a friend.

Ryan Peterson, president of Follett Higher Education, said there’s a reason for automatic enrollment. Peterson argues without automatic enrollment into Follett's textbook program, students would face prices that increase at a higher rate than inflation.

The company self-reported that it saved Merced College students more than $4 million dollars since 2021.

College officials at Merced College try to spread the word about the program. They are also collecting surveys from faculty and students to determine if Merced will stick with it.

Despite the issues, some students do find the program useful. Angel Ibarra, 21, says he prefers digital books the program offers because he doesn’t have to carry around heavy books. As an engineering student at UC Merced, he thinks the pricing is fair.

Students can also use their student loans or scholarships to pay for textbooks since they are charged for the program with their tuition and fees, college officials say. This has been helpful for Ibarra, who’s parents can’t afford to pay for all of his expenses, but can cover them with a student loan.

Removing barriers to learning

Hailee Guerra is in her second semester at Fresno State since graduating from Lemoore College last year.
Rachel Livinal
Hailee Guerra is in her second semester at Fresno State since graduating from Lemoore College last year.

Now at Fresno State, Guerra has access to books through a different program called Verba by Vital Source, which operates similarly to Follett Access.

The university says Verba has saved students more than $22 million dollars since 2017.

But this semester, Guerra is also enrolled in a zero-textbook course with one of her old professors from Lemoore College. She says she learns better with no textbook.

She also says her classmates, most of whom didn’t transfer from Lemoore, like the different approach too.

Guerra is enrolled in an accelerated program at Fresno State for aspiring elementary school teachers. She sees benefits beyond just not having to purchase a physical book. She said she also views open educational resources as a way to bridge inequity among students.

“I know there has been a lot of talk about open education resources in education recently, Guerra said. “I like that, especially as someone who wants to go into education, especially in the Central Valley, where we don't really have the best funding for everything. “

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.