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Posted on Jan 30, 2015

Embracing ‘Affordable Learning Solutions’ to promote equity

This article was written by CSU Libraries on January 30th, 2015.

As tuition increases for college students, so does the need to control other costs.

That’s why libraries are making affordable textbook alternatives available to students through the CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions program. Leslie Kennedy, director of Affordable Learning Solutions, or AL$, works with campuses in the California State University system to create cost-effective options for students.

“What we’re trying to do in the CSU is help faculty discover and hopefully adopt low- or no-cost materials,” Kennedy said. “And from the student perspective, we’re trying to support student success.”

AL$ promotes cost-effective alternatives, such as e-books, book rentals, course reserves from libraries and free open textbooks. The program aims to familiarize faculty with the available options and encourages them to choose resources that save their students money.

High textbook prices can get in the way of student success when students opt not to take certain courses because they can’t buy the text. Or they take courses but don’t buy the textbook.

“Students don’t buy the book, but take the course anyway and will accept a lower grade as a result, and then there are those who don’t even pass,” Kennedy said.

One study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 65 percent of students have decided not to buy a required book because of the price, and a single book can cost more than $200 depending on the course.

CSU libraries play an important role in saving students money. The Chancellor’s Office offers $20,000 grants to campuses proposing their own AL$ initiatives, and often, the libraries spearhead the effort to offer more affordable materials to students.

“For the most part, the CSU’s libraries have stepped up and taken the lead,” Kennedy said.

A hub for affordability at Pomona

One of the first universities to partner with AL$ was Cal Poly, Pomona. Their Affordable Learning Initiative (ALI) started in summer 2011 and has been growing ever since, said Emma Gibson, head of library public services.

A website about ALI offers resources for faculty and students, and serves as a hub for outreach.

“It gathers together a lot of resources like MERLOT (thousands of free, open textbooks); it links to a lot of the library resources; it links to sources where you can actually go and look for free e-texts,” Gibson said.

The library also provides services on Blackboard, the university’s learning management system where students access library databases based on their major and the courses they’re taking. Faculty can also work with the library to post course-specific resources on Blackboard.

“We’ve provided links to articles from our databases and we can also provide them links to our e-books from our e-book collection,” Gibson said.

But the librarians are perhaps the most important resource in ALI. Pomona’s librarians are encouraged to remind faculty about the program’s different services, and assist instructors in finding suitable course materials.

One such faculty member recently came to Gibson asking for her help in finding an affordable textbook for a new Spanish course. Gibson found several resources in the library’s collection, and even more texts through MERLOT, all of which she sent to him, she said.

Now, she’s waiting to see what book he chooses for his students.

“Contact us and we’ll do the searching for you to try to locate materials, an assortment of materials so that you can make the final decision,” Gibson said.

Bookstore and library collaborate at San Jose State

Started in spring 2012, San Jose State University’s Affordable Learning Solutions program partners the library with the bookstore to save students money. Each semester, the bookstore sends a list of textbooks ordered by faculty to the library, where that list is cross-referenced with all of the e-books in the library’s collection. The library then comes up with a list of more than 150 e-books available to students if they would prefer not to purchase a textbook.

“It’s gotten increasingly popular,” said Ann Agee, one of the coordinators of the program. “Back in spring 2012, we had 1,758 students using them. In fall of 2013, this last year, 5,000 students.”

That can mean as much as $130,000 in savings from e-book alternatives in one semester alone, Agee said.

The library also coordinates the Textbook Alternatives Project, which offers grants to encourage faculty to switch to more affordable options, be they e-books, open textbooks or course packs. Faculty are offered $1,000 to make the switch. Two faculty members have even written their own textbooks through the program, Agee said.

And for faculty who don’t have time to search for a less expensive textbook alternative, the library is doing that work for them, launching a book-matching program that pairs affordable books with many of the largest general education courses, Agee said.

“A lot of this is time,” Agee said. “Our faculty are teaching three to four courses every semester, and it’s not lack of will. It’s just going out there, finding out if it’s any good, you know, and it’s tough for them. So we’re going to do some of the legwork.”

‘Keeping education affordable for everybody’

In the end, the libraries offer up the tools, and it’s the faculty who make use of them, Gibson said.

“It’s the enthusiasm of the faculty who are involved, and the dedication of the faculty to really do whatever they can do to try and ensure that students have a good learning experience,” Gibson said. “When textbooks are too expensive a lot of students would go without. And when they go without the textbook they’re not really getting the full advantages of their education. So I think the faculty try to ensure that as many students as possible can obtain and access the textbooks they need for their course.”

For Agee, the program ensures that a quality education is available to all students, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“It’s equity,” Agee said. “It’s keeping education affordable for everybody, not just people who have money.”

For Kennedy, the AL$ program is about solving problems through options, and each campus involved is figuring out which solutions fit their faculty best.

“We’re not about prescribing what folks need to do, what faculty need to do, what students need to do; we’re about providing a spectrum of choice,” Kennedy said.