Open, affordable textbook efforts save students $4.8 million in potential costs

Penn State University Libraries' course reserves program, while not accounted for in cost savings by Penn State's Open and Affordable Educational Resources working group, is another initiative of the University Libraries to provide course materials to students at no additional cost to them. Details are available at Credit: Penn State University Libraries / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Strategic efforts by Penn State University Libraries faculty and staff over the past three years to lower or eliminate the cost of textbooks and other course materials has paid off — nearly 20 times over — in potential savings for Penn State students.

“Penn State’s novel, combined approach to lowering textbook costs through the use of both freely open and affordable, or low-cost, resources, is gaining notice in higher education nationwide,” said Rebecca Miller Waltz, University Libraries head of Library Learning Services and co-chair of the University’s Open and Affordable Educational Resources (OAER) Working Group. “However, even more impressive is the multifaceted breadth and depth of effort we are making across the University in growing open and affordable course materials for reducing students’ overall cost of attending classes and transforming education across the commonwealth.” 

Funded primarily by Provost Nick Jones with support from Penn State World Campus, University Libraries, Teaching and Learning with Technology, and Barnes & Noble, the initial investment of approximately $245,000 has saved students $4.8 million in potential expenses on textbooks and other course materials. The success from these initiatives has enabled an ambitious three-year plan to be extended to invest an additional $600,000. 

At the same time, faculty have greater access to open content online that they can revise and excerpt as they see fit to tailor their instructional content, giving them the flexibility to design lessons and assignments and embed content best suited to their teaching approach and environment. This adaptability of content has opened up the potential for new and cutting-edge approaches to instruction and learning.

What began as a 2016 report from an Open Educational Resources Task Force charged by the provost five years ago has evolved today into the OAER Working Group, co-chaired by Waltz and Ann Taylor, assistant dean for distance learning and director of the John A. Dutton E-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The working group includes faculty, staff and student representatives from across the University. 

The working group’s efforts support Penn State’s strategic foundational goal of enabling access to education by lowering the cost of overall attendance. Among several concurrent initiatives making the group’s success possible:

  • Faculty development through the Affordable Course Transformation (ACT), a grant-based program, led by University Libraries and Teaching and Learning with Technology, helps support instructors in replacing high-cost published course material with “pedagogically sound open and affordable” content. ACT assists faculty in making materials available at no cost to students or for under $50. The ACT program, which is about to launch its third round of projects, already has helped instructors of 30 courses across 15 campuses either author or adapt course materials for classes in 19 subjects. Once this material has been created, future instructors can access and adapt it for their own instructional needs and for students’ access. An estimate of potential cost savings to students for this initiative alone exceeds $1,177,700.
  • A Libraries-licensed e-textbook pilot program for World Campus courses, initiated in fall 2017. Through the fall 2019 semester, 355 e-books replaced traditional textbooks and were made available for 296 World Campus courses for an overall online student potential cost savings of $3,277,637. These e-books have been placed into the University Libraries’ catalog for unlimited perpetual use, so residential course instructors and individual students also are able to access them, extending potential savings for additional students in the future.
  • During the 2018-19 year, the e-textbook pilot expanded to include residential courses from the College of Information Sciences and Technology and the College of Engineering — the University’s largest college by enrollment, exceeding 8,000 undergraduates. While the first pilot program among University Park campus engineering students alone included only 35 e-books among 13 courses, their impact was significant. The total potential savings those e-books provided to students exceeded $266,560.

For more information about Open and Affordable Educational Resources at Penn State, visit To learn about additional Open at Penn State initiatives being led by the University Libraries and its partners, visit

Penn State faculty interested in adding e-textbooks to their courses are encouraged to reach out to their subject liaison librarian or campus librarian. For a list of contacts, visit

Last Updated February 13, 2020