OpenStax College doubles down on free textbooks

Laura and John Arnold Foundation underwriting six new books

Rice University-based publisher OpenStax College today announced plans to more than double the number of titles in its catalog of free, online textbooks by 2015, thanks to a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF).

More than 150 colleges, universities and high schools have adopted an OpenStax textbook since the nonprofit publisher’s 2012 launch. OpenStax’s introductory textbooks for physics and sociology have been downloaded more than 70,000 times, with two new biology books and an introductory anatomy book becoming available this fall. The LJAF grant will allow OpenStax to add books in six more subjects — precalculus, chemistry, economics, U.S. history, psychology and statistics — by 2015.

Rich Baraniuk

OpenStax College founder Rich Baraniuk displays the nonprofit publisher's first five free textbooks. OpenStax will add six more titles by 2015, thanks to a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

“Access is the future of higher education,” said Rice Professor Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax College. “With student debt at an all-time high, it has never been more important to make education more affordable. Our textbooks do that — not just because they are free, but also because they are every bit as good as books that cost $100 or more. Philanthropic support from forward-thinking partners is critical to making this possible.”

OpenStax College invests more than $500,000 to develop each book. It hires the same content developers that major publishers hire, and its books are peer-reviewed by hundreds of faculty reviewers. Grants make it possible for OpenStax to offer its titles for free.

OpenStax College ultimately plans to offer books for 25 of the nation’s most-attended college courses. College students could save an estimated $750 million over five years if the publisher reaches its goal of capturing 10 percent of the market for each of the 25 books.

“OpenStax College has a bold vision for transforming education that is directly in line with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s strategic, entrepreneurial approach to maximizing opportunities for all individuals to succeed,” said LJAF President Denis Calabrese. “We are confident that these digital textbooks will generate the greatest possible return on investment — expanded access to knowledge and additional educational opportunities for students.”

OpenStax College also drives adoptions by partnering with for-profit companies and publishers. It has more than a dozen partnerships with companies that provide online homework, assessment and other fee-based products and services that are designed to be packaged with specific OpenStax titles. Because such extras improve student outcomes, instructors often look for them when deciding which book to adopt for their course.

“Changing textbooks is a lot of work for an instructor, so they only do it every few years,” Baraniuk said. “Our goal is to make it very easy for an instructor to choose our book the next time they update their course curriculum.”

Baraniuk said that high textbook prices are holding back some students. For example, the cost of textbooks frequently exceeds the cost of tuition for community college students today; and according to a Public Interest Research Group study, as many as seven out of 10 community college students try to get by without buying a book for at least one of their classes each semester.

“Instructors want their students to do well, and we want to provide instructors with a book option that helps students both in terms of price and performance,” Baraniuk said. “Quality is the key. We believe the reason instructors have been slow to adopt open-source textbooks in the past has been that the free options weren’t all that attractive. The rapid success of our books over the past year bears that out. If you offer a quality book for free, people will jump at it.”

OpenStax’s other philanthropic supporters include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation and the Maxfield Foundation.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.