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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 4:08 PM

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Editorial: Textbook prices another barrier to higher education

The high cost of college textbooks is a barrier to higher education that deserves attention from Congress.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE skyrocketing price of textbooks is one reason more college students are finding higher education increasingly unaffordable. “Open” texts — free or low-cost online alternatives to the printed renditions — are a promising potential solution. Students seem to love ’em.

But there need to be more open textbooks, and they should be as good, or better, than the materials they replace. Only then will more professors embrace them and start ordering them for their classes.

Quality costs money. Bills in Congress authored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, and others would authorize federal grants to create, adapt, update and expand access to inexpensive digital course materials.

Such legislation deserves approval. Administered properly, the grants would improve access to higher education. The sad reality is that books, which should be a gateway to learning, instead are a barrier for many students now.

College textbook prices increased 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The College Board estimates students now spend up to $1,200 a year on textbooks.

In a Seattle Times news story Katherine Long reported recently that financially strapped undergraduates sometimes decide which classes to take based in part on how expensive the books are. Or they sign up for the class and don’t buy the books, a risky strategy.

Washington has been a leader in exploring technology’s potential to bring textbook costs down. Over the past four years, with funding from the Legislature and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the State Board for Community & Technical Colleges has identified or helped create inexpensive online textbooks and other materials for 81 popular courses.

The savings to students: at least $5.5 million.

Tacoma Community College students have saved another $643,000 since September 2011 through a pilot project that helps professors find online textbook substitutes.

The results suggest a federal investment in making textbooks more affordable would be money well spent.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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