Textbook-free degrees aim to take down student debt

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textbook-free z degree at Tidewater Community CollegeIn 2013, Tidewater Community College became the first regionally accredited institution in the United States to offer a degree in which students pay nothing for required textbooks. Dubbed the “Z-Degree” (for zero textbook cost), the first-of-its-kind program awards an associate of science degree in business administration. Lumen Learning provides courseware and support for the program’s 21 “Z courses,” which are designed using open educational resources.

With community college textbook costs averaging $1,200 per year according to The College Board, TCC leaders estimate that a student who completes the degree could save $2,000 – $3,000 over the course of the two-year program. This amounts to at least a quarter of the total cost-of-degree.

Planning for the Z-Degree, TCC leaders chose business administration as the focus because of this program’s popularity, as well as the availability of an innovative faculty member willing to lead the shift to open content. They also sought support from both instructional and administrative staff to ensure the project’s success. The combination of executive leadership, a faculty champion, an enthusiastic faculty team, and well-orchestrated support from a project advisory committee helped ensure the high profile project would be well-executed.

The project’s participating faculty members are impressed with the level of student engagement that becomes possible when every student has free access to all course materials on the first day of class. Instructors also appreciate the freedom to incorporate the best available educational materials from around the world into their courses. Linda Williams, the project’s faculty champion and professor of business administration at TCC, describes the experience this way: “In the past I only had the official adopted textbook to choose from. Now I have the whole world, using open courseware from people who are worldwide experts in the fields I teach. I’m finding incredibly creative and innovative approaches to concepts that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. That kind of freedom is amazing.”

Impact of the textbook-free degree

The student response has been tremendous. By the end of the program’s first year, it had served 800 students, with total textbook cost savings estimated at $128,000. As word about Z courses gets out, students are clamoring for more courses and sections to adopt the zero textbook cost approach. College leaders estimate student participation will nearly double in year 2, to approximately 1,500 students.

Preliminary data from the program’s first semester indicate passing rates with a C or higher are comparable between Z courses and traditional courses. However, significantly fewer students withdraw from Z courses before the drop deadline. This translates into more enrolled students who successfully complete Z courses.

Sustaining Success with OER

As research data validate the program’s positive effects on both affordability and student success, TCC leaders are looking to expand the program to allow more students and instructors to participate. With this expansion, faculty support remains an important priority to ensure a successful transition and ongoing use of OER for core curriculum. With analytics and ongoing measurement of Z courses and the program overall, TCC anticipates gaining greater insight into what works to improve student learning.

According to Daniel DeMarte, TCC’s vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer, “By eliminating textbook costs, the Z-Degree makes a college degree more affordable and attainable for many of our students. Our use of OER is also changing the conversation about student success and learning outcomes as we measure results and identify what are the best resources to teach a particular outcome. That is the real power of open educational resources.”

Learn more about Tidewater Community College’s textbook-free Z Degree. 

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