HOWTO: Get Free College Textbooks

Category: Education , Reference

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 college 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 400 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.

Since the start of the program two years ago, the folks behind OpenStax estimate that they've saved students over $13 million with their free textbooks. Their goal is to provide free college textbooks for ten million students. The three publishing companies that dominate the higher education market (Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Wiley) must have some strong feelings about that. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that textbook prices have jumped over 800% in the past three decades, so maybe they'll do just fine.

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:
1) Free Online College Courses,
2) Free Online College - Part 2
3) Free Online College - Part 3

The OpenStax textbooks can be read online with a web browser, or downloaded in PDF format for viewing on a PC or laptop. Free PDF viewing software such as Adobe Reader or Foxit Reader allows you to place annotations and highlighting in the text. EPUB format is also available for those who wish to view on a mobile device such as a tablet or ebook reader. 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 480+ schools 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 "HOWTO: Get Free College Textbooks"

Posted by:

08 Aug 2014

Hard to believe the professors are willing to give up the cash for their textbooks. In the late 90's I have to buy their texts for $100 to $150 each and if they were going to be reused (which wasn't usually the case) the bookstore would buy the used books back for $5 to $10. Can't see them giving up on their lucrative scam.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2014 has many free textbooks (called flexbook) available for download. These books are for high school student. Sometimes a high school textbook is better than a college textbook.

Posted by:

TJ Berry
08 Aug 2014

I am going back to homeschooling this year with my 2 boys, the older of whom is in the latter years of high school. This sort of resource is exactly the kind of thing we need & use! Thank you so much Bob for sharing! :D

Posted by:

11 Aug 2014

Let's get things straight - no professor is getting rich selling textbooks. [For the record, I am a professor but I have never written a book.]

"... you don’t write a book to make money, you write a book to start a conversation. You write a book because you have an idea that you are passionate about, that you want to share with the world."

Now - another good resource for free textbooks


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