Student Success Through Open Educational Resources (OER)

A student cannot be successful in class if they do not have the reading materials that form the basis of assignments.  Yet in more cases than one might imagine, students do not purchase the required reading due to rising costs of text, whether in print or available in electronic format for download.  This is because a growing number of students on tight budgets have housing and food insecurity and they must make survival choices that cannot prioritize expensive books.  Without the learning material, student success suffers as they fall behind, neglect to the do the work, fail to achieve a passing grade or overall required gpa to stay in their course of study, and they become another negative statistic for retention and graduation rates.  

The purchasing of textbooks is just one more “hidden” cost or fee that goes along with rising tuition rates. While students may scour the internet for deals on used books (careful to ensure they are purchasing the correct edition, translation, etc), savvy students may select courses based on the expense of the required reading materials, and they may look to see whether copies of the texts are available in the library and under what conditions they may be borrowed (e.g., a couple of weeks or a couple of hours due to reserve policies to enable maximum sharing).  Some students may also form a “collective” and purchase one set of reading materials to share amongst the group. This too limits the flexibility and sometimes focus of class preparation. 

Encouraging faculty to explore the use and development of open educational resources (OER) for their courses is a solution to the economic challenge faced by students.   OER are the “teaching, learning, and research materials--digital or print that are in the public domain or have been released under an open license that allows no-cost access, use adaptation, redistribution by others with limited or no restrictions.” The literature is full of documented evidence that OER provides substantial economic benefits to students in the short-term (ability to access reading material at no cost) and in the long-term by reducing student debt (e.g., loans necessary to cover the price tag of the texts). From a quality standpoint, studies also reveal that faculty and students believe OER is equal to or better than commercial textbooks. By 2022, the number of faculty using OER for introductory college courses increased from 6% in 2017 to 22%.  A 2023 study reported that in 2022-23, 2 in 3 faculty members were aware of OER and 1 in 3 faculty members required the use of OER materials in at least one course.  The trend is being noted across the country. Achieve the Dream’s OER Degree Initiative funded 38 colleges across the country who collectively offered 6,600 OER course sections over a 32 month period, benefitting approximately 160,000 students who collectively saved at least $10.7 million in textbook costs.

Provosts can incentivize faculty to prioritize the development of OER textbooks in two important ways – through OER fellowships and/or research grants; and through the weighting of OER textbooks the same or better than commercially published textbooks when it is time to consider scholarly work for general productivity and especially for rank promotion. Provosts should partner with the campus library to support and promote OER development and use efforts, in fact some schools are specifically hiring OER librarians. Faculty need not reinvent the wheel.  Similar to selecting commercially prepared textbook from a publisher’s catalog, sources such as OpenStax, a nonprofit based at Rice University, provide dozens of textbooks in a wide array of disciplines, to faculty to adopt and for students to access at no cost. Iowa State University has published an OER Starter Kit to help faculty interested in the potential of OER. Another useful aspect of the OER culture is that faculty need not use just one resource in its entirety, but rather faculty are free to use what is available in the public commons and add and delete to existing materials to create more tailored OER materials for their specific syllabus/approach. 

There has also been funding available from USDOE to support OER textbook projects. Examples of university supported funding for faculty can be found here, here, here, here, and here

Some colleges and universities are now designating which sections and courses use OER textbooks so students can choose their courses based on the knowledge they will not have to pay for the reading materials.  This only helps institutions meet their inclusion and belonging goals by enabling all student learners, regardless of economic status, to have equal access all required course materials. Just last month a community college in Kansas announced its plan for a future without printed commercial fee-based textbooks. OER is not just the future of higher education, but it is here now with significant acceptance and demand.  Provosts should collaborate with their libraries and faculty governing bodies to ensure that their institution stays competitive and desirable through the availability and use of OER. 


Written by
Patricia E. Salkin, J.D., PhD., Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost for the Graduate and Professional Divisions, Touro University

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