Illustration by Christine Hipp

Free: a word that makes many practiced consumers narrow their eyes and think, “What’s the catch?”

On April 11 the office of California State Senator Darrell Steinberg released a statement that said two new bills passed in the Senate Education Committee would create free digital open source textbooks for the 50 most common lower-division classes taken in college.

According to the press release, “SB 1052 would set up a competitive bid process inviting faculty, publishers, Silicon Valley and all others to bring forth their best ideas for the creation of free digital textbooks that can be easily customized and rearranged. SB 1053 would create the California Open Source Digital Library to serve as a statewide repository for the textbooks and related materials.”

California State Universities and California Community Colleges will be required to jointly administer the library. While the bill cannot require the autonomous UC system to participate, the bill requests that the UCs also contribute to administrating the library.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP), whose industry would suffer if the bills passed, opposes the bill.

“There’s no such thing as a free online textbook,” said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at AAP. “It’s just a question of who’s going to pay for it.”

Hildebrand said publishers have been replacing textbooks with cheaper, digital copies throughout the past decade and that people just need to compare how the cost of tuition has risen over the past few years to how the cost of textbooks has accompanied this rise.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, UC Santa Cruz’s tuition experienced a 63.6 percent increase in tuition from $8,200 in 2008 to $13,416 in 2011. However, the average cost of books and supplies increased by only 3.2 percent since 2008, from $1,356 per student to $1,400 in 2011.

According to the AAP, the cost of producing a textbook and all the materials that might be included with it can exceed $1 million.

“I’d like to see this legislation produce 50 textbooks for $25 million, but it’s not possible to create 50 quality textbooks with the necessary supplements for that amount of money,” Hildebrand said.

SB 1052 states that a $25 million state-led strategic investment in Open Education Resources (OER) can fund textbooks of the highest quality for the 50 most commonly taken lower division courses.

“We are exploring possible options for funding,” Trost said. “Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg has indicated in committee hearings that it could possibly come from the general fund, but that he is open to finding non-profits willing to help. The Republican leader indicated he would be more inclined to support the bills if we found non-general fund options.”

If SB 1052 passes, a California state OER will be created. However, there are many existing OER resources that already offer textbooks, most of them for college-level education. Currently, an OER website created by the Institute for Knowledge Management in Education offers 568 textbooks for post-secondary education.

Frank Baüerle, mathematics lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, supports efforts to reduce costs of textbooks for students. Like Hildebrand, he is concerned about the quality of textbook content.

“Our department would definitely be interested and willing to look at a freely available textbook,” Baüerle said. “Now, a book these days is no longer just a book. There are additional resources that come bundled with the textbook, such as access to online resources and online homework. If, and if so, how, a freely available text supports these aspects remains to be seen.”

Senate bills 1052 and 1053 have passed in the Education Committee and must pass through the Appropriations Committee before they can reach the floor of the Senate. While the bills make their way through Congress, they serve as one of many attempts towards a larger effort to aid the growing costs of higher education.

“I think it is a good idea for the state to invest some money to help students,” Baüerle said. “But first and foremost, the state should work to lower tuition by reinvesting in education rather than slashing it.”