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Originally published November 7, 2011 at 3:31 PM | Page modified November 8, 2011 at 9:46 PM

Tackling the high cost of textbooks

An effort by Washington's community colleges to create low-cost or free textbooks and learning materials ought to broaden into a movement. The average college student spends $900 a year on textbooks.

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COLLEGE students already burdened by skyrocketing tuition deserve relief from overpriced textbooks.

All the more reason to cheer and support a pioneering effort pushed by the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges to develop new, dramatically less expensive textbooks and learning materials.

The board's new Open Course Library currently has less costly versions of learning materials for 42 of the state's most heavily enrolled community-college courses, including entry-level classes. An additional 39 courses will be ready by 2013.

Students who used to pay nearly $200 for a new pre-calculus textbook can pay only $20 — or use it online for free.

The $1.26 million in expected savings for the 2011-2012 school year represents real money for community-college students, who often are older and paying for their own education and living expenses.

The real prize is $41 million in annual savings if all faculty at the state's 34 community- and technical-colleges begin assigning open-source texts to their students.

Credit state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, for laying the groundwork with key legislation two years ago that invested $750,000 in state money — with a match from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — to develop the library. Faculty, designers and librarians set out to create high-quality learning materials.

Because they're digital and open-source, books and other course materials produced this way can be adapted, improved or updated on the fly to fit different classes.

A smart, long-term approach starts in next year's legislative session with a push to use open-course books for K-12 classes. That would amount to huge savings for taxpayers since school districts adopt new curricula and change out textbooks with expensive frequency.

This is a big deal. Parents and students struggle to pay for rising tuition and then run into the high cost of textbooks every quarter. A rise in enrollment and in the price of textbooks has created a lucrative industry. Students spend about $900 per year on textbooks, amounting to a $9 billion industry.

Ways to address the rising costs are ongoing in Congress and in state legislatures.

This is all good. But careful attention must be paid to the nuances of book publishing, including copyright laws and the right of instructors to decide what materials to use in their classes. Nothing should dampen the creativity and rigor that fuels published works.

But the shift to more open and accessible materials is already happening. The Massachusetts Institution of Technology provides most of its course material online for free.

Carlyle and Washington's community and technical college board are taking big steps toward eliminating the $200 textbook.

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