GLASSBORO — Rowan University is doubling the size of a grant program to create free course materials for students with the hope of improving college affordability.
The college awarded 10 grants this year to professors in a variety of studies to create low- to no-cost textbook or reading materials.
Writing arts professor Jude Miller and two of his colleagues were awarded one of the $2,000 grants, which Miller said will save his freshmen students a collective $251,472 next year.
“For me, as corny as it sounds, this provides us the opportunity to help the most amount of people, which is exactly why I got into teaching in the first place,” Miller said.
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From free college initiatives to student-loan forgiveness programs, the issue of college affordability is at the forefront of state and national conversations on higher education.
In April, the National Association of College Stores endorsed a federal bill, the Affordable College Textbook Act of 2019, that proposed a grant program to create and expand the use of open textbooks, among other initiatives aimed at textbook affordability.
In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring colleges in the state to submit a plan to the secretary of higher education to expand the use of open textbooks and commercial digital learning materials “to achieve savings for students enrolled in the institution.”
Some colleges nationally and locally have already introduced programs to provide low-cost textbooks for students.
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“Affordability is one of Rowan’s four strategic mission pillars,” said Rory McElwee, vice president for student affairs at Rowan. “We know that affordability is one of the primary determinants as to whether students can enroll and stay enrolled.”
Rowan’s Assistant Vice President for Academic Support Services Sean Hendricks said the Textbook Alternative Program came out of the college’s Affordability Taskforce.
“It’s hard to have a conversation of affordability with the idea of textbooks not coming into the fold,” Hendricks said.
The task force surveyed students and found they were spending about $1,200 a year on textbooks.
“Which was concerning on a lot of levels,” Hendricks said. “And a lot of that money is out-of-pocket expenses. We also found that some of our students were not purchasing some of their textbooks, with affordability being the No. 1 reason that they’re not.”
In the first year, Rowan gave out five $2,000 grants to faculty to create low or no-cost textbooks. Professors teaching law and justice, computer science, chemistry, public relations and English all partook and rolled out their materials in spring 2019. Hendricks said the program impacted 650 students.
With more money, Hendricks said they could reach so many more students, so they doubled the number of grant recipients this year hoping to save students a total of $1.2 million in 2020.
“I think it’s a huge deal. We talk about, could we lower the number to zero? We don’t know the answer to that, but we can certainly lend a hand to make it more affordable,” Hendricks said.
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Miller and fellow writing professor Amanda Haruch, along with Sam Kennedy, Rowan’s information literacy librarian, will use library resources as well as online open education resources to replace the two standard textbooks that are currently being used in the College Composition II class. About 2,300 students take the course each year and were previously required to purchase a $50 textbook, on the lower end of the price scale for college materials.
“This is a course that every student, regardless of their major, takes, and I believe that it’s incumbent on us just to be mindful of supporting students,” Miller said.
He said incoming freshmen already face a number of obstacles.
“While we don’t have any control over the cost of tuition, we do have control over one albeit-small cost in their freshman year,” he said.
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James Grinias, an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department who took part in the grant last year, redeveloped the Analytical Chemistry and Quantitative Analysis course materials using an open-source textbook at no cost to students. The savings for students were $47,656.
Grinias said he knows how expensive books were for him as a student, and how the cost has risen.
“It was hard for me to assign a book that cost over $300, so I wanted to explore free alternatives,” he said. “The students were happy that there was no cost for the open-source textbook, and I found that they still performed well in the class with the new book.”
Grinias said the price of higher education is a constant concern.
“And it is our duty as professors to do anything we can do to help reduce the costs of a high-quality education,” he said.