How to Get Free College Textbooks

Category: Education

Tution and fees inflict most of the pain of college costs, but the price of textbooks is especially galling to students and parents. Textbooks are notoriously expensive, and often are useful for only one semester. But a consortium of educators is making high-quality textbooks available in free, open-source forms. Here's where to find them...

What is Openstax College

When I went to college back in the mid-1980's, most of my textbooks were written by the professors at that university, and we had no choice but to purchase them. I'm sure they did this to supplement their incomes, and there's no law against that. Sometimes you could sell your books at the end of the year to students who would be taking the same course. But the professors often came out with new editions (usually with minor changes) and required that incoming students use the latest and greatest. That made your expensive textbook worthless on the resale market.

Digital textbooks have been around for several years, but they're still expensive. And I'm sure professors at many institutions are still playing the "buy the latest version" game. But there's a move afoot to make digital textbooks available for free, borrowing a page from the playbook of the open-source software movement.

Free College Textbooks

Openstax College is a nonprofit initiative of Rice University that is supported by several philanthropical foundations. The free digital textbooks it provides to over 200 participating universities and colleges are selected for readability and peer-reviewed for academic rigor. Each book’s content is arranged to match the standard progressions of most college courses.

What Subjects Are Covered?

Currently, the Openstax library includes free texts on math (including Calculus and Statistics), Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and U. S. History. There are only a dozen or so titles and they are suitable for freshmen and sophomore students. But it’s an excellent start on a truly paperless college education.

If you're looking for free college courses, see my three-part series: Free Online College Courses, Free Online College Courses - Part Deux and Free Online College Courses - Part Three.

The OpenStax textbooks can be read online with a web browser, or downloaded in PDF format for viewing on a laptop or tablet. Free PDF viewing software allows you to place annotations and highlighting in the text. And of course, you have the option to print all or selected portions of the book, if you need a physical copy.

It’s simple and free to try an Openstax textbook. Just sign up for a free membership and download a PDF copy of any textbook. (Verified instructors can get a free printed copy.) Try a chapter or two on your own or on a class of students you teach. Then just incorporate Openstax into your teaching or learning program.

Free and low-cost ancillary materials are available with each book. A free membership in the Openstax online community provides teachers, students, and administrators access to each other. Affiliate partners provide low-cost printed editions of books; homework resources; online assessments (quizzes and tests); and online tutorials.

Improvement by the user community is a hallmark of the open-source movement, and textbooks are no exception. All users of an Openstax text are encouraged to submit corrections and suggestions for improvement. The goal is “to build the perfect textbook” for any course.

Who Can Benefit?

If you attend one of the 200+ colleges around the world that are already using OpenStax College free textbooks, then the answer is YOU!

For autodidacts (do-it-yourself learners), Openstax is a broad, solid general education foundation that just happens to be totally free! It’s a rare 18-to-20-something who has the self-discipline and contemplative nature needed to direct his or her own teaching systematically and effectively. But if you are or know someone like that, Openstax texts can be an invaluable resource.

Being part of a community of lifelong learners has its own unique benefits. Not only does it give you access to those who know more than you; it also gives you ways to practice and reinforce what you learn by helping other students.

Perhaps in the future there will be no ivy-covered towers; no lecture halls; no unnecessary and expensive frills of a “college experience.” There may be just virtual communities of learners and mutual teachers, creating, sharing, and improving their own educational resources.

Have you checked out OpenStax College textbooks, or taken advantage of the many excellent free online college courses available? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How to Get Free College Textbooks"

Posted by:

01 Aug 2013

Bob, Once again, I thank you for your work, and the help that you may provide for other people. I trust that many will use your research and this help in furthering their education and saving, (perhaps not spending)a lot of bucks.
The rapid growth of "illiteracy" in America is of great concern. Of greater concern is the ever growing "aliteracy" among the literate.

Posted by:

Danny G
01 Aug 2013

I have the feeling it's not so much the authors that make the big money,but rather the publishing companies.

Posted by:

01 Aug 2013

I taught college for several years and tried to stick to the $50 or $100 rule: find books that are NOT text books for students to learn from (read EXtensiely rather than INtensively), and books that they can use as tools - after they finish the class so that meant paper back books. the problem is that books are like tools - USE THEM!, never underline what you know, only what you don't - and make them read like sentences so that WHEN (not if) you cram for exams you are reading the material for the third time at least - once to learn you don't know the material, then again to make the sentence, and then a thrid time to make sure it's a good enough sentence you can read it really fast.

This of course makes text books unresalable - if any book store DOES accept it,it'll be at the lowest price. In all fairness, I've only had a hand full of profs who required their own books, it was generally frowned upon, but if prof A is a friend of Proff B, there's nothing to keep them from requiring each other books - the BIG money is made by the perhaps three text books (could be two or one by now) publishers. They have glossy paper, you can take notes in them, highlighters work, and they do cost a fortune. I tried to start up a 'student exchange program' where each class would simply 'donate their books to the next semester' - but being paper books it never caught on much.

Also teachers can and most DO sell back their 'desk copies' at the end of a semester to the publisher at near full price, more money in their pockets. I always donated a copy of the paper backs to the library, and ALWAYS the 'desk copies' to be put on 'reserve' and after a year or so with the same book, the library would have enough 'reserve' copies that some could be checked out overnight.

The best way is to set up your own 'college' -- any state board of education has the paper work, then you simply call the publishers of your textbook, and let them know you need a desk copy of X, Y and Z - but you use only Y. This will often work for a few years, and you ARE not accredited, but many text book salesmen don't know it and send you copies for free - it's all done over the phone. But too many colleges in the same town looks suspicious, so for this to work you need to act quickly and get your paper work AND FEES into your state department of ed. Every state has their own system, follow it to the letter or you WILL be busted for fraud.

I used my position to help out a lot of single parents (yes men can be single parents too) in subjects outside my field of study by a 'white' lie that I was being re-assigned for a semester to teach in Department X,Y,or Z. And that MIGHT have been fraud. Yeah, Ouch - but for good quick study, nothing beats a highlighter and the time to use your book like a tool. SOMETIMES a prof will fall for a sob story and give away their student copy, though it MORALLY belongs in he library 'Reserve Room'. Good lucky students - remember when they say jump through the hoop, jump, or you (really) won't graduate. Really. When they say See the Hoop? JUMP wihtout hesitation, it's hard, but well worth the trip out the other side, though I'd not recommend a Doctorate to anyone these days, Masters Level work is good enough for 95% of the jobs out there. --- USE your books, like the tools they are - and don't expect to get any kind of 'return on the dollar' because book stores have to make labor and overhead too -- so that $250 first year math book? Yeah, it sucks -- MAYBE you can lead a student revolt - NO ONE SHOULD EVER HAVE TO SPEND $250 FOR A SEMESTER -- it's immoral, and paper backs can teach you the same thing-- as can throw away books from publishers, or second hand or student run book stores, or for early0-n classes, why not USE 11th, and 12 grade text books - after all it's not like you every read them when they were free? Maybe some prof out there will read this and wake up. I taught a history of writing (read: Word Processing Class) using $45 worth of books, and the students came away able to use WordStar (their final which they'd never seen) WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, as well as have a grasp of the history of writing, language, and the idea that a word processor is NOT just a fancy typewriter. (Doctor Bob will explain what those are and why America was built on the back of an IBM Selectric II, and a Royal Office.)

Posted by:

01 Aug 2013

I was wondering, did you ever have an "open book" test? I have and until recently, "put all other devices away, just a pencil eraser and you textbook." was the norm. This first bit me when I was taking a Calc class where we were allowed (actually needed) a graphing calculator. Well, mine was my phone. Whenever we had a test in class that was fine with the prof. But once he was out and we had to take the test in the testing center. His instructions to the testing center were calculators required. Luckily I checked with the testing center with their policies. No phones, computers, tablets allowed, period. I had to buy a calculator.

I did have two courses where you took all your exams were either printed and you had to turn it in on the due date. Others were on-line. These tended to be access to anything, even other students. The idea being for the on-line tests, it was 20 questions in 30 minutes and you would run out of time if you had to "research" each question. The other class where you took the test home, you were encouraged to do the tests with your "village."

But these e-books are going to be a challenge for the profs from now on. This means you need to make your test significantly difficult to research on the fly, if you allow open book tests. The main idea of open book tests, according to one prof, was that in the free answer/essay questions, you might have forgotten a particular term, phrase or tidbit of fact that you need to answer the question, and basically if you didn't know it already, you couldn't answer the question. But with a phone, tablet, computer or other e-device you could have notes, access the Web, anything. Like if I could have used the graphing calculator app in my phone.

Posted by:

Danny G
03 Aug 2013

The Open Syllabus Project seeks to promote institutional cooperation in the task of gathering and analyzing a significant corpus of syllabi. Our principles are as follows:

We believe in openness and transparency while respecting the intellectual property rights of all constituents. We create and make publicly available a rich dataset of metadata, while protecting the original documents in a secure “research sandbox” environment.

We believe in data-driven innovation. A critical mass of documents can foster new tools, drive policy change, enable best-practices, provide metrics, and aid in search, discovery, and the creation of new course materials.

We invite participating scholars and institutions to collaborate and benefit from the project’s research, platform- and tool-development experiments. Our team includes the nation’s leading librarians and legal scholars who are committed to an ongoing dialog about knowledge sharing, preservation, and accessibility.

Posted by:

Harish Dobhal
09 Aug 2013

Thanks a ton for this wonderful information.

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