38 Community Colleges Launch Entire Degree Programs With Open Educational Resources

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Image Credit: Josh Felise

The sticker shock of college textbooks—up 73 percent over the past decade—is daunting to any student. But the strain on wallets is especially acute among low-income, minority students. So much so that textbook costs often stand between them and graduation: Students who don’t complete college are over 50 percent more likely than those who graduate to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier, according to research firm Public Agenda.

Today national community college reform network Achieving the Dream announced an initiative to remove some of the financial burdens that traditional educational resources place on students. Over the next three years, 38 community colleges in 13 states will build entire degree programs around open educational resources (OER). The goal of the “OER Degree Initiative” is not only to reduce financial burdens on students, but also to encourage faculty to teach in more engaging ways that encourage students to more actively participate in the use of OER.

“These resources have not been as widely used as they can be in higher education,” Achieving the Dream President and CEO Karen Stout said at an OER Degree Initiative kickoff conference held this week in Burlingame, CA. “Adoption is usually for a single course, by single faculty. Few use materials with the intention to package them to support full degree completion with OER.”

A New Model for Affordable Degrees

The 38 participating community colleges have a combined total enrollment of 500,000 students. Many of them are eligible for Pell grants, and are first-generation, minority students. Participating schools will create entire degree programs using OER in four two-year programs: business administration, general education, social science and computer science. The new programs will be available to at least 76,000 students across the institutions.

The initiative received $9.8 million in funding from a consortium of investors, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Philanthropy in higher education has been mostly directed toward four-year institutions,” said TJ Bliss, Hewlett Foundation program officer. “Students at community colleges are disproportionately disadvantaged. We believe community colleges can use OER to improve success for students.”

For the past 30 years, Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s community college system, has been irked by the price tag of course materials. “The cost of textbooks is the biggest ripoff in higher education,” he said, explaining the ripple effects it has on college completion. “Too many students show up, enroll, and start the semester without a textbook. They start behind the eight ball.”

Cost is not the only motivating factor in the OER Degree Initiative. The promise of engaging faculty and students in curating course materials encourages new ways of teaching and learning. In Virginia, “It’s really opened up a whole new world of scholarship for faculty and students to publish and to be creative,” DuBois said.

Lumen Learning, which provides and helps schools implement open course materials, will offer technical assistance to the OER Degree Initiative participants. David Wiley, co-founder and chief academic officer at Lumen, says that OER is essential in creating customized learning environments. “The best models of personalization will rely on open. Because the best person to personalize something for you is you.”

Paving the Way

The initiative will build off of early success that’s already happening with OER at some of the participating ATD schools. Tidewater Community College, for example, has received widespread recognition for its “Z-Degree” program—a four-year, transferable associate of science degree in business administration with no textbook costs. TCC reports the program has seen improved student retention and an estimated 25 percent reduction in college costs (tuition and books) for students.

With the new funding, TCC and the other community colleges will work on additional programs. “We’re not being funded for the degree we’ve already developed,” says Denise Yochum, president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood, WA. “We’re pursuing a new degree pathway for students in pre-nursing.”

Over the next three years, Achieving the Dream will act as an intermediary to the participating colleges by managing grants to them and overseeing implementation. Research firm SRI International will evaluate the initiative and track how OER degrees impact student success.

The 38 community colleges will do much of the heavy lifting in making OER degrees possible for other institutions. At the end of the three years, all approved OER courses will be available through an online platform to non-participating institutions. “The goal with doing this at 38 schools is to make it available to 500,” Wiley says.

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