Rutgers-Camden students pushing for free, open source textbooks

by Jason Laday | South Jersey Times | 02/25/2015

Rutgers-Camden senior Moira Cahill tapes a note to a poster board, recording the amount one of her fellow students spent on textbooks this semester. Cahill is a member of the campus chapter of NJPIRG, which was advocating an open source alternative for textbooks in the school's student center, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. (Staff photo by Jason Laday | South Jersey Times)

CAMDEN -- With the average college student spending $1,207 on books and supplies for the 2013-14 school year, or $1,253 if they go to a private school, the price of textbooks is rising faster than the cost of medical care, according to the College Board.

But what if textbooks were free?

A group of Rutgers-Camden students with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG) assembled in the campus student center Tuesday afternoon, asking that very question. They are currently advocating for the university to open a process that would allow students to use open source textbooks -- or books, accessible online, that are free for use to the public, without concerns for copyright -- in place of traditional texts.

"There are already universities and schools that use open source libraries, which allow professors to write open source books for those libraries," said Rutgers-Camden junior Kristi Collemacine, a coordinator for NJPIRG's textbook campaign, which has reached colleges across the state. "University of Massachusetts Amherst has an open source library, as does the University of Minnesota, and Tidewater Community College has an online textbook program called Z-Degree, which is a zero-cost degree."

According to NJPIRG, a consumer advocacy group that has had a presence at Rutgers-Camden for the past 40 years, students across the campus would save $618,000 if just one of their traditional textbooks were replaced with a free, open source book.

If every college student in the nation saw one of their books go open source, the savings could reach $1 billion, says the group.

"Right now, the textbook companies know they can charge us anything they want," said Collemacine, an English major who spent about $500 on books over the past fall and spring semesters. "They know we need the books, so they charge us whatever they want."

NJPIRG's goal is to convince the campus to start an open source PILOT program. So far, the group has received endorsements from three Rutgers-Camden professors.

Support from professors would be key to any open source project, since it's the professor who assigns which textbooks students need for class. It would take professors switching from traditional books to something new.

Michael Galvan, the Rutgers-Camden campus organizer for NJPIRG, recognizes this, adding the group is currently reaching out to not only students, but also professors and the university senate.

"If just one department here at Rutgers-Camden, or even one professor, begins assigning open source textbooks, it would be huge," said Galvan. "There are also things the school can do -- University of Massachusetts Amherst has a competitive grant program for professors to write books for the open source library. They are also peer reviewed."

In the student center, students with NJPIRG asked their peers how much they had spent on textbooks this semester. They would write down the amount on a piece of paper, and tape it to a poster board: $770, $600, $650, $500, $250, $480. The list kept growing.

"I spent $410 on books this semester, including $177 on a Spanish textbook alone," said junior Omar Samaniego, an economics major. "It just makes no sense."

Standing beside him, political science major Moira Cahill, another volunteer with NJPIRG, said she put down $160 on "just a thin poli-sci book that was less than 200 pages."

"I spent a total of $365 on books this semester," said Cahill, a senior. "It's just too much."

--

Jason Laday may be reached at jladay@southjerseymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLaday. Find the South Jersey Times on Facebook.

Tags:

textbooks rutgers - camden