College Promise & Open Educational Resources: A Winning Combination
By Hal Plotkin, Senior Open Policy Fellow at Creative Commons USA
This week is Open Education Week, when members of Open Education Consortium come together to showcase what they’re doing to make education more open, free, and available to everyone.
When Melissa Hoch was in her mid-40’s, newly divorced, and working in a low-paying job, she faced a problematic but all-too-common dilemma. Her work as a dental assistant did not provide enough income to meet much more than her necessary expenses. But to qualify for a better salary, she’d need to go back to college to upgrade her skills, which meant she’d have even less money to cover other pressing family needs, including braces for her teenage daughter.
Hoch found her answer at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College, which was the first community college in the nation to offer a Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) Degree program. ZTC programs use free, high-quality open educational resources (OERs) — learning materials that reside in the public domain or which have been released for their free use and repurposing — to enable students to earn a degree without having to purchase or rent any commercial textbooks. In these programs, students are not required to pay for time-expiring passwords to log onto these online digital learning resources. Instead, all needed learning resources are provided free of charge.
“Because of Tidewater’s ZTC-Degree Program, I did not have to choose between continuing my education and buying braces for my daughter,” says Hoch, now 48, who has since graduated Tidewater and earned her Bachelor’s Degree at Old Dominion University. She now works as a logistics coordinator at a cargo export business.
The use of OERs addresses one of the key financial obstacles to people completing education beyond high school: The thousands of dollars students must shell out for textbooks and other learning materials. The cost of books and supplies are often the straw that breaks the camel’s back when students try to cover all the costs of attending college. This financial burden often prevents students from completing their course of study, or from even enrolling in a community or technical college after high school. The overall cost of attending college while managing the day-to-day expenses of living is what makes people believe that higher education is beyond their financial means.
That’s why many community colleges are adding OER’s to their College Promise Programs, which cover tuition and fees for students to earn degrees, certificates, or transfer credits on their campuses. Throughout the country Promise programs are increasing at the local, state, and institutional level, as leaders recognize that high school education is not enough to be prepared for today’s increasingly competitive, technical and global economy. The idea is to remove financial barriers so that more residents will seek and complete higher education. More than 200 programs now exist in 44 states. And many leaders now realize that reducing textbook costs will enable more students to start and complete their education after high school. That’s why they’re adding OER’s to their free college programs.
Together, Promise Programs and OER’s enable more college students to cover more of the other expenses of attending college, such as rent, transportation, childcare, and even braces.
“At the College Promise Campaign, our goal from the start has been to remove financial barriers so more students can achieve their educational goals,” says Martha Kanter, Executive Director of the College Promise Campaign and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education (2009-2013). “We are glad to see that so many innovative Promise programs are using OERs as a way to reduce costs for students,” she said. Kanter developed and implemented the nation’s first pro-OER policy at a community college in 2003 when she served as Chancellor of the Silicon Valley-based Foothill-De Anza Community College District. “We’ve made a lot of progress since 2003, with dozens of colleges coming on board since then. I’m truly thrilled to see these new combinations of College Promise and ZTC degree programs emerging.”
The College Promise Campaign, which encourages localities and states to create free college programs works in tandem with Achieving the Dream, a non-profit organization in Silver Spring, Maryland, to support evidence-based interventions to promote student success.
Achieving the Dream is currently helping 35 community colleges implement OER-based ZTC programs.
“Many students, especially those at community colleges, are prevented from enrolling, staying enrolled, and completing college because of the cost,” says Dr. Richard Sebastian, Director of Achieving the Dream’s OER Degree Initiative. “Our Initiative is helping colleges remove the barrier of textbook costs for their students. Combining a Zero Textbook Cost program like ours with free tuition will have an even greater impact on these students, freeing up resources for them to pay rent, support their families, and cover the other costs associated with attending college.”
The combination of Promise Programs, which are now available in more than 44 states across the nation, with the use of OER, including in ZTC programs, gives many students who thought college was beyond their means a new, more affordable route to earn market-relevant credentials. What’s more, students enrolled in Promise Programs that use OER can also maintain free access indefinitely to all the learning materials assigned rather than having to sell their textbooks back to the college bookstore at the end of each term.
“When I found out it was costing my students $370 to purchase the textbook and software to take my class I was appalled,” says Shawna Haider, a math assistant professor at Salt Lake Community College, in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the first community colleges to combine a Promise Program with the use of OER originally developed by professors at other community colleges. Haider says she customizes OERs to suit her teaching methods and style by the terms of their open license, which permits modifications. “Now, I can take something where someone has given me a good start, and I can tweak it a little to add my way of doing things. I wanted to do that.”
Last year, the OER program at SLCC covered 1,477 sections, up from just 32 three years ago. The college says that more than one third of all SLCC have used OER, representing a total of $4.6 million to students by end of Fall 2017. With these resources available, all the students in these classes have access to all the learning materials they need to succeed on the first day of class. The data show that students who use OER’s do just as well or better than students who use costlier commercial learning materials while saving substantial amounts of money for other needs.
By combining Promise Programs with the use of OER, including by offering full ZTC degrees, colleges and communities are turning the promise of an affordable higher education degree into a reality for more students than ever before.