Al Franken wants to make college textbooks free

For $150,000, the University of Illinois created an open-source book sampled by 60,000 students.

For $150,000, the University of Illinois created an open-source book sampled by 60,000 students.

It’s painful to think of the parties that could have been if college textbooks were free. Last year the average student reportedly dropped $1,225 on dry tomes and supplies that will supposedly make them smarter. That’s nearly 25 kegs of Natty Light, 68 “party” size Toppers pizzas, or almost enough to rent an inflatable laser tag arena.

Now Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, wants to make college parties way cooler. That or lower the debt mountain most students find themselves atop after earning/buying that diploma. The Harvard man (do Ivy Leaguers party?) is pushing a bill that would help create free textbooks. The legislation would stick it to Big Math by establishing a grant program to fund so-called “open textbooks” — online books available for profs, students, whoever to use and distribute however they see fit.

Noting that Minnesota students graduate with the fifth most debt in the nation, Franken says he’s surprised how many hours students work while in school.

“When I worked in school, I worked less than 10 hours a week,” he recalls. “I’ll go to a roundtable and say, ‘How many here work 20 hours a week?’ Most of the hands go up. ‘How many work 30?’ A lot of hands. ‘How many work 40 hours a week?’ There will be some hands. That’s very difficult to go to school and go full time.”

Co-sponsored by Franken with bill buddy Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, the Affordable College Textbook Act works like this: Higher ed institutions apply for government cash to fund the creation of a shareable book. That otherwise marked-up educational content could be built on or customized by other schools and tweed jacketed academics to suit their courses.

It’s unclear how much the book share move would cost Uncle Sam. However, three years ago the University of Illinois spun $150,000 into an open-source book sampled by at least 60,000 students.

According to a U.S. PIRG survey, 65 percent of college students have passed on buying a textbook because it was too expensive. On some campuses, books make up more than 40 percent of the cost to attend, says Ethan Senack, a higher education advocate with the consumer group.

“It’s clear that for students and families that are already struggling to afford a college education, it’s not just an expensive textbook anymore,” he says. “It’s a serious barrier.”