Photo Credit: Logan Ingalls

Governor Jerry Brown’s Huge Gift to California Community College Students: Free Textbooks

Earlier this week, California Governor Jerry Brown did something that will put thousands of dollars into the pockets of California community college students. The cash will arrive in the form of direct out-of-pocket savings as California joins Virginia and 38 community colleges in other states that are rolling out Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree programs. ZTC degree programs give community college students the opportunity to earn an entire high-quality, transfer-eligible degree without having to spend a dime on proprietary textbooks. What’s more, students can maintain free access to all their college learning materials forever.

The new program, which supports the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) to establish community college ZTC UC and CSU transfer eligible degrees, was contained in a budget allocation and trailer bill Brown quietly inserted into next year’s state budget. The allocation has received scant press attention. Nonetheless, it promises to generate one of Brown’s most important legacies. Over time, millions of students will save billions of dollars. The quality of educational materials is also likely to steadily improve as well, thanks to OER’s transparency features.

OER are resources that impact teaching and learning, such as textbooks, lesson plans and lectures, that have been released with an intellectual property license allowing their free use and repurposing by others. Educators around the globe are increasingly turning to shared reliance on OER as a way to provide students with immediate access to necessary learning materials at no cost and to collaborate more quickly and easily. The fast growth in the use of OER is also beginning to make new types of collaboration in teaching and learning across borders and cultures more affordable and practical. Most experts agree that we are still in the early stages of this new revolution in the delivery of learning, job-training and teaching.

California’s new ZTC program is easily the most ambitious state-level effort to promote the use of OER in public higher education to date. The state is making $5 million available in direct grant funds specifically to establish ZTC degree programs at the individual community college district level, with grants of up to $200,000 per participating college. One community college district in the state will be provided with up to $500,000 to coordinate the activities to avoid duplication of effort and to promote sharing of free, open learning resources between schools. The development and support of ZTC degrees also now becomes a recommended use of an additional $83 million being provided to California’s community colleges to meet more general needs. To qualify for ZTC development grants, colleges will have to explain how they will make it possible for students to move through an entire transfer eligible A.A. degree program without having to pay any out-of-pocket costs for textbooks. California community colleges won’t have ZTC programs ready in time for the coming academic year but at least one, College of the Canyons, has already announced its plans to have a ZTC program in place by Fall 2017. Two others, Santa Ana College and West Hills College Lemoore, have also announced commitments to quickly implement the idea.

Governor Brown’s ZTC program was tucked into the budget just a few weeks before the announcement that Achieving the Dream, a community college reform group, is overseeing a similar grant program to establish ZTC degrees, which it calls OER Degrees, at 38 community colleges in 13 states.

The movement toward offering ZTC programs using OER started two years ago at Tidewater Community College, in Norfolk, Virginia. “Because of Tidewater’s ZTC degree program I did not have to choose between continuing my education and buying braces for my daughter,” says Melissa Hoch, 46, a Tidewater graduate and former dental assistant, who returned to school after a divorce and has since completed her Bachelor’s degree at Old Dominion University. Virginia is currently expanding the Tidewater ZTC model to every community college in the state.

All of the learning materials developed for California’s community college ZTC degree programs will be licensed under a Creative Commons BY license, which will make those materials freely available around the world to use, adapt, customize and improve as long as the original authors receive credit for their work, under a policy adopted by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges.

Hal Plotkin is a Senior Scholar at ISKME, in HMB, CA. Senior Advisor, U.S. Dept of Ed (2009-14) and Senior Open Policy Fellow, Creative Commons USA (2014-2017)