Every year, college students shell out thousands of dollars for tuition. Then they face an additional cost: textbooks. Students spend as much as $1,300 over their college careers on books alone. A pilot program from a community college reform group just outside Washington, D.C., could help.

Achieving the Dream this month announced $9.8 million in grants for developing degree programs that use online, open-source materials instead of expensive printed books. The initiative takes advantage of teaching resources in the public domain to cut costs for at least 76,000 students at 38 community colleges in 13 states.

Textbook prices rose 82 percent between 2003 and 2013 – almost three times the rate of inflation. It doesn’t help that some publishers release new editions of their textbooks each year, so students looking for a required text can’t buy used. Those financial barriers force students to fall behind in their classes, lowering their grades and raising withdrawal rates.

OpenStax, a nonprofit that produces peer-reviewed, open-source textbooks, estimates it has saved over $66 million for nearly 700,000 students – most of them at four-year institutions. But community colleges draw a larger share of disadvantaged students. By focusing on two-year programs, Achieving the Dream hopes to fix the hole that most needs a patch – not just for the schools it funds, but also for other colleges that adopt the programs its grantees will develop.

It’s important work, and it’s hard: When your product is free, there’s not much opportunity for profit. Achieving the Dream received funding for its grants from a few charitable organizations, but it may need more to scale up after the pilot program ends. OpenStax also relies primarily on philanthropy. Policymakers could help by providing more funding. Yet it’s also up to schools to take advantage of the resources already available. By integrating open-source materials into their curriculums, colleges would make learning better and cheaper at the same time.

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