UNC Press initiative aims to tame the soaring and burdensome cost of textbooks

UNC Press initiative aims to tame the soaring and burdensome cost of textbooks

- in Education, News, Top Story

This month the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics released a new edition of Contemporary Precalculus Through Applications, the popular book and the only text in the school’s precalculus courses.

But this new edition is available digitally, for free, to not just students at the elite residential high school but high school and college students all over the state. The move is part of a partnership between NCSSM — the only high school that is part of the UNC System — and the nonprofit UNC Press.

Print copies of the book’s last edition, published by textbook giant McGraw-Hill, are now going for $50 on Amazon. But the new, updated edition is available as a free download. Even the new print edition will be sold at-cost, for $38.

It’s part of UNC Press’s commitment to “open educational resources” (OER), said John Sherer, Director of UNC Press. He hopes the the press will be doing this kind of work more and that it will be replicated by university presses in other states.

“I’ve been [at UNC Press] for ten years now and this all originates with an assessment I made early on when I got to the press. I asked, ‘What is the value of the UNC Press to the UNC System?’”

An evolving mission

The press, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is located on the campus of the system’s flagship university, UNC-Chapel Hill. In recent years it has focused more on its mission as a system-wide publication outlet, as well as its service to the 16 universities in the system, their faculties and students.

“When I got here I went around and talked to chancellors and provosts and said, ‘What are you looking for from the press?’” Sherer said. “None of them said the thing we do the most, which is publishing things in the humanities, scholarships and monographs. They said, ‘That’s great and we’re proud of you for doing that, but it’s not solving problems on our campuses.’”

John Sherer, Director of the University of North Carolina Press

But there were problems the press could tackle, Sherer said. “What they described was the publishing challenges they had,” Sherer said. “They described the stranglehold publishers have on journals — you have to buy these big bundles, which librarians hate — and on textbooks. They were talking about sustainable scholarship, essentially helping materials be more available and more affordable for students.”

The press created the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services (OSPS) to address some of the problems. The feedback from faculty, administrators and librarians was great, Sherer said.

“There were books libraries had that were archival editions and they wanted to create copies, new editions, so that people didn’t have to go up to Western Carolina to get the only available copy of it for research,” Sherer said.

There was room for collaboration on more than research and making rare tomes more accessible. “We realized there were a lot of faculty who wanted to write their own textbooks — not for profit, but to help their own students,” Sherer said. “There have also been some examples where a faculty member’s text goes out of print and we take it and update it and create a free digital edition.”

That’s ideal for schools or universities within the system that want to present a subject in a certain way to students — precalculus at the School of Science and Mathematics, for instance. Its core text introduces the subject to students not through chapters full of math problems but through narratives that explain practical applications for calculus, such as making investments and calculating how much food will be needed for a pet.

Free digital editions are also ideal for helping to alleviate the ever higher cost of attending college, Sherer said. “Even if you’re on a full scholarship, it may not cover the cost of books and materials,” Sherer said. “These days, that can easily be another $1,000 a year.”

Taylor Gibson, dean of mathematics at NCSSM

Even digital copies of textbooks — an increasingly larger segment of textbook publishing– can go for $150 or more, Sherer said. College students find it difficult to afford those books, but it’s nearly impossible for public schools, where they are used by multiple students, and the cost is amortized over several years.

For us, if we wanted to buy a digital version of a book it doesn’t work well in a high school market because the rights to the copy are tied to a student, not a school,” said Taylor Gibson, dean of mathematics at NCSSM. “This is going to be unaffordable for us to keep up to date with mass-produced books if this is the direction it’s going.”

The UNC Press program extends beyond science, math and STEM subjects, Sherer said. The press has worked with UNC-Asheville on creating digital copies of its humanities readers that are free to the university’s students through the campus library.

“My daughter is at UNC-Asheville and she was paying $60 a copy for each edition,” Sherer said. “I love the alpha and omega of it, because there couldn’t be two schools more different than Asheville and Science & Math, but they’ve both been helped by this.”

The “stranglehold” that modern for-profit publishers have on most textbooks is troubling when students at public schools and universities need them at the lowest possible price, Sherer said. “Some of these publishers are making more than the oil companies,” Sherer said. “Well, until recently.”

Expanding access, opportunity

The idea of using the UNC Press to expand access to texts and other resources for students across the state dates back to former UNC System President Tom Ross, Sherer said.

Former UNC System President Tom Ross

Ross faced a politically driven ouster in 2015, after Republicans took control of the General Assembly and began what amounted to a purge of Democrats on the UNC System Board of Governors. But when he was replaced with Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under former President George W. Bush, Sherer said support from the system, its president and governing board continued.

“We named our publishing grant fund after Tom Ross and were able to raise over $100,000 for small grants to this kind of work, doing new editions and making things more accessible,” Sherer said. “But we have had broad support for this — from Tom, from Margaret Spellings and now from [current UNC System President] Peter Hans.”

In a statement this week, Hans, a former president of the state’s community college system, praised the press’s work to make the go-to precalculus book at NCSSM available at no cost to students from high schools, community colleges and universities across North Carolina.

“This is a perfect example of how the UNC System and its constituent institutions render a great service to public education in North Carolina,” Hans said. “This textbook will now be more accessible at state high schools and community colleges to benefit tens of thousands of students. I commend UNC Press and NCSSM for partnering to expand access and opportunity for all.”

NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts said his school would like to do more in the future. “This is a really important way that NCSSM can be of service to math and science education in every corner of North Carolina,” Roberts said. “If we could identify some sources of funding to make it sustainable, this is the kind of thing we would love to be able to do more of. I’m very proud of the math department for sharing this approach to precalculus freely across our state.”

Sherer echoed the observation that this initiative is a worthwhile investment and model for the future. “It takes an investment, but for us we know it was the right move,” Sherer said. “It’s about the question, ‘What should a university press be? We know what it needed to be in our first century. But what does it need to be in the second?”