Economics 101: Free textbook + 1M students = opportunity

Rice-based OpenStax College unveils free textbook for introductory economics

With its latest free textbook, Rice University-based OpenStax College is going where no open-education publisher has gone before. Principles of Economics, available online today, is OpenStax College’s first book for an introductory course with an annual U.S. enrollment of more than 1 million students.

“With economic news dominating the headlines, there has never been a greater need for students to understand the subject,” said Michael MacDowell, managing director of the nonprofit Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation, which helped underwrite the book’s development. “At the same time, college students face an economic problem themselves — the spiraling cost of textbooks. OpenStax College’s new book addresses that issue head-on by providing a high-quality college economics text that is available free online and/or at low cost in print.”

OpenStax College's free textbook, Principles of Economics, is available at Credit: Javier Lozano/Rice University

OpenStax College is riding a wave of change in the college textbook market. According to College Board, the average student spent $1,200 for college books and supplies in the 2012-2013 academic year, and a 2011 survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 70 percent of college students said they had skipped purchasing a textbook at least once because the price was too high.

Launched in 2012, OpenStax College uses philanthropic gifts from major foundations to produce high-quality, peer-reviewed textbooks that are free online and low-cost in print. The nonprofit publisher’s first six books have already saved students more than $8 million, been downloaded more than 480,000 times and been adopted by more than 540 community colleges, four-year colleges, research universities and high schools.

“There is an enormous demand for affordable learning materials,” said Richard Baraniuk, founder of OpenStax College and the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice. “That’s evident to anyone who looks at our adoptions, which have increased more than 30 percent in the past four months. But it’s also evident if you look at the convergence that’s beginning to take place between open-education and traditional publishing.”

Baraniuk said one of the distinguishing features of OpenStax College’s financial model is its emphasis on partnerships with for-profit providers of educational services. These partners combine their services with OpenStax College’s free textbooks, which allows them to offer a full suite of online testing, homework, digital tutoring and other services for a much lower overall cost.

Richard Baraniuk

OpenStax College Editor-in-Chief David Harris said two partners, Sapling Learning and Wiley, have already signed on to offer collateral products and services for Principles of Economics this fall. Harris said the introductory economics text — the seventh title in OpenStax College’s catalog — is the first in a string of books OpenStax is set to publish this year that will cover courses that typically enroll more than 1 million U.S. students each year.

“Economics represents the largest market we’ve entered to date, but we’re also planning to role out titles for precalculus, psychology, U.S. history and chemistry later this year,” Harris said. “Those are also high-enrollment courses, and we’ve had a lot of interest from partners who are eager for a high-quality, low-cost option. We’re eager to work with them because the bottom line for us is improving access by lowering costs.”

OpenStax College is made possible by the generous support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the Maxfield Foundation, the Calvin K. Kazanjian Foundation and the Leon Lowenstein Foundation.

For more information, visit


About Jade Boyd

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