Skip to Main Content

Open and Affordable Course Content

Textbook Costs: A Social Justice Issue

“higher education shall be equally accessible to all”

-- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Promoting accessible, equitable educational resources is a pillar of social justice advocacy. With the total student loan debt acquired in the United States amounting to $1.5 trillion dollars (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019), finding ways to alleviate this increasing cost and instead prioritize student success is essential.

High textbook costs and consequences


Textbook costs and financial aid

​According to Student Public Interest Research Groups' 2016 nationwide survey of nearly 5,000 students: (Student PIRGs, 2016)

  • Nearly one-third of students stated they used their financial aid to pay for their textbooks.
  • Of those that used their financial aid to pay for textbooks, the cost of said purchases exceeded more than $300 per semester.
  • 5.2 millions U.S. undergraduate students spend a total of $1.5 billion of financial aid on textbooks each semester.

Impact on Student Success

  • In a survey of students from over 150 campuses, 65% of students reported not purchasing a textbook because of its high price (U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Student PIRGs. 2014. Fixing the Broken Textbook Market.)
  • In a survey of more than 22,000 Florida college students, students reported that the cost of required textbooks had caused negative impacts on academic performance and time to graduation, including earning a poor grade, failing a course, and not registering for a course. 

Florida Virtual Survey Results. Chart 1. Impact of Textbook Costs on Students.

(Florida Virtual Campus. 2016. 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey.)

Impact on Retention

Textbook costs and Historically Underserved Populations

Students who are from historically underserved backgrounds, part-time, first generation, financial aid recipients often feel the burden of textbook costs more acutely.

A study at California State University Channel Islands found that Latinx, first generation, and financial aid dependent student felt higher stress from textbook costs than their white, non-first generation, and non-financial aid dependent counterparts (Textbook Affordability and Student Success for Historically Underserved Populations at CSUCI):


Textbook costs result in increased stress for all groups surveyed, but it is clear that historically underserved students feel the effects of this cost more. 

Why This Matters at VCU

VCU's diverse student population includes a large portion who are a part of those groups which are disproportionately impacted by high textbook costs. 

Of the more than 24,000 undergraduates at VCU in 2019-2020: 

Demographics (VCU Facts and Rankings)

  • 45% are minorities
  • 30% are underrepresented minorities
  • 33% are first generation college students

Financial Burden of College

  Net price for low-income students (price after subtracting grants and scholarships). Minimum Wage # of hours per week at minimum wage needed to pay net price (assuming 50 wks/yr).

Income earned from working 10 hrs a week at state's minimum wage.

Affordability Gap (net price minus income earned working 10hrs at minimum wage)
Virginia $12,537 $7.25 34.6 $3,625 $8,912
State Average


  26 $4,356 $6,550

Financial background (SHEV Financial Aid Research)

  • 1/3 of VCU students are Pell Grant eligible
  • In 17-18, 13% of dependent students were from families who are at or below the poverty line
  • In 17-18, 30% of independent students with dependents were at or below the poverty line

Debt (The Institute for College Access and Success)

  • VCU students graduate with an average debt of $32,617 
    • That’s more than the national average ($29,200) and the VA average ($30,363)
  • 63% of VCU graduates have debt
    • Compared to 57% of students in Virginia

Other Expenses

Student Success and Retention (VCU 2018 Fact book report, Graduation and Retention Rates)

For students who entered in Fall of 2012 (the last available year of data):

  • ​About 45% graduated in 4 years
  • About 68% graduated in 6 years

From Fall 2007-Fall 2017 (as available), retention rates have hovered around

  • 85% for 1 year
  • 75% for 2 years
  • 70% for 3 years

The Promise of Open and Affordable Course Content

With VCU’s diversity, Open and Affordable Course Content can increase the possibility of success for all our students, no matter their background.

Financial Benefits:

Student Success Impact:

  • Students using open and affordable course content see little difference in learning outcomes (aka grades are about the same) (Clinton and Khan 2019, Hilton 2018, Hilton 2016)
  • However, withdrawal rates decreased for those classes using OER (Clinton and Khan 2019)
  • In a 2018 study, student users of OER textbooks saw similar or improved academic performance such as higher pass rates and lower failing and withdrawal rates when compared to users of a traditional textbook in a similar course. 
  • ​This is especially true for students who require substantial financial assistance. (Student PIRGS, Covering the Cost)

Success for historically underserved populations (The Impact of Open Educational Resources on Various Student Success Metrics)

  • Pell grant recipients, part-time students, and historically underserved populations see a greater impact in both their grade improvement and DFW (drop, withdrawal, fail)  rate decrease than their counterparts


Difference in Average Grade Point for OER Users. Non-Pell Grant Recipients: 6.9% increase. Pell Grant Recipients: 11% increase. White Students: 7.1% increase. Historically underserved students: 13.1% increase. Full Time Students: 3.2%. Part Time Students: 28.1%

Difference in D F W rates for OER Users. Non-Pell Grant Recipients: 2.05% increase. Pell Grant Recipients: 4.43% increase. White Students: 1.51% increase. Historically underserved students: 5.13% increase. Full Time Students: Decrease of 1.10%. Part Time Students: 10.14% increase.

  • Historically underserved populations using OER saw a 13.13% increase in average grade compared to historically underrepresented minorities who did not use OER in a similar course. These students also witnessed a 10.15% decline in their DFW rates. 

With the cost of textbooks impacting student success, from which courses students choose to how well they do in those courses, open textbooks can serve as an effective intervention, ensuring all students have access to the materials they need to be successful in their chosen academic path.