When Elizabeth Walz successfully ran for student government last year, she built her campaign around an issue she knew would resonate with her peers at the University of California, Davis: textbook costs.
For days, she polled students on their textbook-buying habits.
"A lot of the responses were, 'I don't even buy my textbooks -- they're too expensive. I only buy the ones I absolutely need" or use the ones on reserve at the library, Walz said.
Like college tuition itself, textbooks costs have been soaring. From 1990 to 2009, textbook prices rose four times faster than inflation, according to the Student Public Interest Research Group. Today, the average college student spends $900 a year on textbooks.
Students can save some money buying used books or electronic versions, and many campus bookstores have started renting popular texts. But a new option is emerging: open-source textbooks that can be read for free online, or printed at relatively low cost.
The main difference between open-source texts and traditional texts concerns copyrights. Traditional textbooks are copyrighted, so students must pay the publisher's price. Open-source texts have limited rights -- they can be shared freely and, in some cases, altered by users.
Open-source books make up just a sliver of the textbooks on college campuses today. But interest is growing.
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C., recently listed the expansion of open-source books as a key way to cut college costs. The Student Public Interest Research Group says open-source materials could save students 80 percent of textbook costs. It is encouraging professors nationwide to sign a pledge supporting open-source texts.
One signatory is Barbara Illowsky, a math professor at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. In the early 1990s, she co-wrote a statistics textbook for a mainstream publishing house. Illowsky requested a contract clause capping the price at $80. But when the publisher was sold, the new company listed the book for $127.
"We were so upset because the idea was we wanted a book that would be lower cost for students," Illowsky said.
The authors bought back the rights and began to self-publish. A couple of years ago, they allowed Connexions -- an online repository of open-source educational materials -- to put the book online under an open license.
Now, anyone can see it. Anyone can print it. And more than 50 colleges are using it.
The authors can make changes anytime. Other professors can incorporate their own chapters or rearrange the material. Hyperlinks are built into the text.
"We did it originally to save money for students, but the book has become a better book by being an open resource," Illowsky said.
Business professor Eric Lin of California State University, Sacramento, isn't convinced open is always better. He's using an open-source book for the first time this semester. Its quality "is not as good as a traditional high-cost textbook," he said. "But it's acceptable ... so I'm really looking at a trade-off here in terms of the costs and benefits."
The open text for Lin's risk management class is published by Flat World Knowledge. The company provides free online texts but makes money selling low-cost printouts. Students can buy printed chapters for $1.99 each, or softcover printouts for about $30.
Kelly Garlick, one of Lin's students, bought a softcover book because he finds it easier to read. But he said he likes being able to access the material on a computer so he doesn't have to "lug the book around."
At UC Davis, another open-source experiment is under way. Chemistry professor Delmar Larsen created an open-source book two years ago when he got fed up with textbook errors and escalating prices.
"I don't think it makes sense to charge them $200 for a textbook that contains material that is so old," Larsen said.
So he started building ChemWiki. Like other wiki sites, ChemWiki accepts submissions from the public. But Larsen closely monitors them: Contributors must be registered and their material is flagged until it goes through rigorous vetting.
"The idea is to create an environment of vetted material so that faculty can come in and construct the kind of textbook they want for their class," Larsen said.
Students earn extra credit by writing units for ChemWiki, and several other colleges have begun to participate. The site drew 30,000 visitors its first year and 500,000 its second.