Last month, the state of California passed a budget that made historic investments to our public higher education system. Among those investments was $115 million for the Zero-Textbook Cost (ZTC) Degree program and the expansion of open educational resources (OER) in the California Community College (CCC) system. “ZTC Degrees” are associate degrees or career technical education certificates comprised entirely of courses that eliminate additional textbook and material fees through the use of high quality, no-cost learning content with an emphasis on OER. 

This investment builds on the ZTC program’s success when $5 million was allocated to create it in 2016. Those funds allowed 23 colleges to build 34 degree or certificate pathways that were entirely free of a textbook cost. It was an unqualified success. These 34 pathways saved over 23,000 students more than $42 million, a more than 8x return on investment. ZTC has been shown to boost student performance and ensure the cost of textbooks is not a barrier to success and completion for California’s community college students.

The expansion of ZTC will profoundly impact students across the state and those most in need. Seventy eight percent of faculty report that when using OER, their students are more engaged in their learning, which contributes to improved student outcomes. Studies have shown that ​​OER can improve grades and decrease D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades. While this improvement is seen by all students, the impact is even greater for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education. 

The Impact of California’s Investment 

An investment in ZTC and OER allows students to focus on their education, rather than what that education would cost. In 2020, U.S. PIRG surveyed more than 5,000 college students and found that ​​65% reported skipping buying a textbook because of cost. Yet 90% of students reported feeling concerned that not purchasing materials would negatively impact their grade. Recent surveys have shown that 25% of college students needed to work extra hours to afford course materials. Additionally, 19% said that they decided what course to take based on the cost of materials. Those costs forced one in nine students surveyed to skip meals. These stresses have only been exacerbated since the onset of the COVID-10 pandemic.

Technical leads from the first ZTC deployment believe the $115 million investment could produce an estimated 240 ZTC degree and certificate pathways. Now that the money is secured, it is key that the funds are used in an effective manner that allows for an equitable impact on students. With that in mind, the Michelson 20MM Foundation has awarded a Michelson Spark Grant to the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) in support of their efforts to prepare Bay Area community colleges to effectively apply for and utilize ZTC funds.

Addressing Wage Disparities

While Bay Area community colleges have long engaged in innovative OER projects, their efforts have generally not deliberately included degree or certificate programs that position graduates for success in the highest paying, highest demand Bay Area careers—including computing, architectural and engineering, and healthcare. In 2016, with the exception of a few colleges, nearly all of the ZTC degrees developed were in programs such as child development, sociology, and general education—fields that do not address Bay Area wage disparities, wherein 68% of Black and 72% of Latino residents are low income, compared to 35% of White residents. If Black and Latinx students have equitable access to programs in high-wage, high-demand fields across more colleges, and are drawn to and persist in those programs, their chances for entering those fields and becoming high-wage earners also increases.

Supporting Students of Color

ISKME is an independent, education nonprofit whose mission is to make learning and knowledge-sharing participatory, equitable and open. They will conduct a study that identifies learning materials gaps where the absence of suitable OER prevents the 24 Bay Area community colleges from offering ZTC degrees that align to high-wage, high-demand careers in the region. Based on the data collected, a gap analysis and map of OER curricular needs will be developed that reflects regional workforce demand. The map will advance ISKME’s effort to facilitate cross-college working groups for the creation of ZTC degrees in Bay Area priority fields where students of color are underrepresented. The time is ripe for increased focus on ZTC degrees for fields that make a difference for California’s community college students, of which 60% are students of color.

“With the state of California massively expanding the ZTC program, our foundation is proud to partner with ISKME to ensure that these funds are used to better the lives of students, both while they are in school and after graduation,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of Michelson 20MM. “ISKME’s work will ensure that Bay Area community colleges are thinking critically about how to expand ZTC degrees to provide the best career pathways for all students, but particularly students of color. Our hope is that other regions of the state will be able to learn from the efforts in the Bay Area to effectively utilize ZTC dollars. ”

We look forward to sharing additional blogs spotlighting each of our new OER grantees and the inspiring work they are leading. 

Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. The Michelson 20MM Foundation is dedicated to supporting and investing in leading organizations, technologies, and initiatives that seek to transform learning and improve access to educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful career. Learn more at