Even in a country where inflation besets most products, the cost of college textbooks has risen inordinately. Average textbook costs, according to the Government Accountability Office, rose by 82% between 2002 and 2013 – nearly three times the rate of inflation.
This means that for many college students, textbooks are nearly unaffordable. With an annual price tag of more than $1,770 yearly for students like those attending Chemeketa Community College, some students feel forced to forgo required texts; a study conducted by the advocacy group US PIRG showed that because of cost, 65% of students do not buy required texts at some point in their college career.
“It’s a huge national problem,” says Meredith Schreiber, Chemeketa Bookstore Manager, “that students often have to go without. I’ve talked to teachers who see the difference between students who have course materials and those who do not. When students don’t have their textbook, the faculty often has to adjust its teaching.”
Studies have shown that textbooks markedly impact student learning because they help students visualize and mentally organize the contents of a course while also supplying visuals and readings that enhance comprehension.
To have Chemeketa students lack this resource bothered Schreiber. Coming to the college six years ago, she was surprised to see that essential books like elementary algebra sold for $180, to students that usually had family and work responsibilities in addition to educational expenses.
“When I arrived here,” she says, “I could tell from the students that textbook cost was a big burden.”
Things began to change at Chemeketa in 2015, when writing professor Steve Richardson questioned if the college itself could publish its own affordable and effective textbooks. Richardson had previously published a writing textbook using a print-on-demand publishing system, and thought the College might do the same with other books.
Encouraged by Chemeketa president Julie Huckestein, Richardson contacted Chemeketa faculty from the math, art, academic development and English departments and together the team developed four pilot books for publication. The Press sent the original content to vendors in electronic files; the vendors printed the books and shipped them back to the college.
In fall 2015, these first four books went on sale, with a fifth, a three-volume set on US History, going on bookstore shelves that winter. Chemeketa sold 1,500 copies of these pilot books in 2015-16, saving Chemeketa students more than $150,000 over the price of commercial textbooks. Additionally, sales of these books brought in $10,000 in revenue for the Press itself.
“From the top down, there was a commitment to textbook affordability,” Schreiber says. She credits the entire institution for its vision. “Other colleges don’t have this,” she says. “They don’t have the cohesiveness to pull this off.” At a national convention where she made a presentation about the Press, “people were surprised that a college could approach this problem in this way.”
That $180 algebra book? Now costs $30. And an Introduction to Art book that used to cost $200 new and $138 used – now sets students back $28.
Before Chemeketa Press, the college bookstore “used to sell only one or two [Art books] a term,” Schreiber says. ”But when the [Chemeketa Press’] Art for Everyone book came out, we sold more books than were students in the class. For the first time, everyone had course materials.”
In the years since 2015, the Press has continually added and revised titles; by fall 2018 it will have printed 31 original texts.
“It’s always thrilling to see new books in the hands of students,” Richardson says, “[and] to play a small part in the story of their education. It’s satisfying to save them money on books so they have more money for additional classes — or food.”
All Chemeketa Press books sell for under $40, and most are priced at under $20, “so we’ve had a big financial impact for students,” Richardson says. “We’ve sold about 20,000 books so far, and we’ve saved Chemeketa students more than a million dollars over the price of the commercial textbooks that our books have replaced.”
Schreiber admits she was hesitant at first. “I wasn’t sure that it would be a quality product I would be proud to present to our students,” she says, but “Chemeketa Press is so successful. These are really good books. They are one of a spectrum of ways the college can provide affordability for our students.”
The books are also specially targeted to Chemeketa curriculum. Because faculty designs textbooks that provide exactly the content needed for Chemeketa classes, Richardson notes, “we together create books that are not just more affordable – but also more effective.”
The Press’s goal is to be fully self-funded by 2021.