If not Z-Degree, how about Z-Core?

I met with several of my university’s Deans today to talk about OER. The conversation began with some information I’ve compiled about textbook adoption on my campus that identified fifty courses where students pay more than $10,000 in the aggregate for their textbooks. Sort of. It actually shows where students would have paid $10,000 if all students had bought new copies of all required textbooks. This is not an accurate number, but I think it’s meaningful for purposes of comparison. I can use it to identify the most expensive courses at my school and target the high-enrollment, high-textbook-cost areas that would provide the most relief for students if OER was adopted.

Some results of the study for my campus:

  1. If all students had bought new copies of all required texts, total cost would have been $2,456,434.33, or about $512 per student.
  2. Of programs with over 1000 student-seats, three are very expensive (Business Administration, Nursing, and Psychology) while Education is pretty low-cost per student-seat.
  3. There were fifty courses where total textbook expense exceeded $10,000, accounting for nearly $770,000 in textbook costs.


Some of the textbook choices have a greater impact than the spreadsheet numbers implied, because they were used across several sections. For example, there were four sections of a Business course called The Legal Environment that used the same $362 textbook bundle. The 118 students in these four sections would have paid $42,774 if they had bought the required materials. Similarly, there were five sections of a Nursing course called Intro to Clinical Practice, with a total of 54 students. The $534 textbook pack resulted in costs of $29,912 across these sections.

I found it interesting that there were several multi-section courses where different instructors required different textbooks, often with great impact on student costs. For example, in a Psychology course called Lifespan Development, the online course’s textbook expense was $103.25 while the in-person course required $249.75 in textbooks. There should be a way to begin conversations about individual instructors’ choices without undermining Academic Freedom.

One of the action items from this meeting was a request by my Dean that I articulate a goal for the campus for the next academic year. The state university system in Minnesota has been tasked by the legislature with creating three Z-Degree Associate’s programs at community colleges in the next academic year, so the “Z” idea is in the air. It’s much more difficult, of course, creating zero-textbook-cost Bachelor’s Degree programs, as I’ve already discussed. But it might be more realistic to try to create a zero-textbook-cost track through my university’s Liberal Education (Gen. Ed. or Core) requirements. Like a Z-Degree, a Z-Core commitment wouldn’t guarantee that every student would be able to get through core requirements without textbook expenses. But we could use a criteria like the one being mandated for the MinnState Z-Degrees: two zero-textbook-cost courses in each transfer curriculum goal area. That should be achievable, and should encourage textbook cost decreases even in those courses that can’t go to zero.