The 101 on OERs: This new report spells out 6 key principles for adoption in higher ed

As concerns over affordability rise, colleges can lean on MHEC's resource to better explore course costs and benefits.
By: | April 15, 2022
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A college or university that switches to open educational resources (OER) can save students on average about $116 per course. Imagine the exponential savings when that number is multiplied by dozens of classes across thousands of institutions.

Choosing OERs over textbooks or other alternatives is not inexpensive for universities because of upfront costs of implementation. But students – the drivers of enrollment – want more affordable, flexible and quick-credit course options. The problem for institutions trying to fully embrace them is figuring out just how  valuable they are, how widespread they can be implemented and how much of a return on investment they offer.

A new report from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) as part of a partnership with the National Consortium for Open Educational Resources (NCOER) offers powerful guidance and six key principles that colleges can use as a basis for how and when OERs should be scaled up to meet demand. They may not have a choice moving forward as half of U.S. states are requiring that institutions show their impacts, and the Department of Education also has put $15 million behind the effort.

“As their investment indicates, states believe in the value of OER to reduce the cost of higher education to students,” said Jenny Parks, MHEC’s vice president of policy and research and the report’s lead author. “It’s only appropriate that they have a transparent way to analyze the costs and benefits to guide further support of OER.”

The 42-page paper not only spells out the value of OERs but offers institutions an opportunity to compare them against alternatives, such as printed materials or inclusive access. The working group that compiled the data and helped prepare the cost-analysis section is a who’s who of leaders with ties to higher education from 11 states and Washington, D.C. – including representatives from SPARC, OpenStax, the University System in Maryland, the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Massachusetts Department of Education. The National Consortium includes the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

“It’s uncommon that you get a group with so many different perspectives to come together and agree on a set of principles for such a complex topic that applies differently to different stakeholders,” stated Eddie Watson, associate vice president for Curricular and Pedagogical Innovation at the AACU. “This report brings together multiple perspectives to contribute more clarity and consistency to conversations around student cost savings and the various other benefits of OER.”

Those six principles offer a framework for implementing OERs and include guidance on how robust each institution’s investments should be, as well as considerations of equity, costs, savings potential, learning outcomes, and other benefits. While authors admit every institution’s situation is unique and say their Creating Clarity to Drive More Consistency in Understanding the Benefits and Costs of OER paper is not completely comprehensive, they do say that “the impact of this work is national in scope and will be beneficial for elected officials and other policymakers across the nation.”


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Authors say college and universities that do dive into it should focus on presenting the value beyond cost savings to students, families, and policymakers. It is also essential for those collecting data on the impacts of OER to be transparent. As for cost-savings analysis, the report includes a framework for how to calculate specific outcomes. A nice resource offered to members of the Open Education Network is its Community Hub, which can help them manage their data and present it to various stakeholders.

Student Watch and OnCampus Research have reported that students now spend about 28% less in 2021 on course materials than they did in 2016. Highlighting the popularity of OERs, 30% of students reported that they downloaded free materials for courses last year. Still, 78% purchased textbooks or had other costs, and the rising costs of printed materials – up 30% over the past decade – continue to be a source of scorn for students. Students actually spent slightly more in 2020-21 than they did in 2019-20 because of increased costs of books.

Spending on books and materials has topped more than $1,200 per year for full-time students, with some texts costing more than $400, according to the Education Data Initiative. That number is about $200 higher for those attending two-year colleges. The EDI says two-thirds of students don’t even buy materials because of cost. The adoption of course materials, they say, has largely been chosen by faculty members, not by the colleges or academic committees.