By Justin Chapman

Students, the Michelson Center on Public Policy, and the Michelson 20MM Foundation asked the California Community Colleges Board of Governors to fulfill Governor Gavin Newsom’s pledge to distribute $115 million to the Zero-Textbook-Cost (ZTC) program and break up the textbook publishers’ “racket.” 

At the board’s July meeting, Michelson 20MM Foundation CEO Phillip Kim pointed out that the state is now more than six months behind the ZTC deadline established in the 2021 budget. 

“That said, it’s not enough to do this quickly,” he said. “We must do this the right way—states and systems across the country are looking to us to lead on textbook affordability, and what you build here can impact vulnerable students everywhere for decades to come.”

Two-thirds of California students are not buying textbooks and other course materials because they’re too expensive. Kyra Karatsu, a College of the Canyons student transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the board that implementing the ZTC funds would allow students to focus on achieving their educational goals rather than worrying about how to afford them.

“Textbooks are costly,” she said. “My student bill in 2021 attests to this. $70 went towards my Physical Anthropology lab manual used only for a short, 8-week course. Another $14 went towards an access code for an online music history textbook. After the course’s final exam, the code expired, and the book could no longer be read. It all added up, and with a few additional textbooks thrown in, my tab eventually came to $370.25.”

It would have been even more expensive than that, but she fortunately had a few professors who used ZTC and open educational resources (OER). Because of ZTC, she paid nothing for her sociology and communications courses. With no “rental” or “access code” strings attached, she’s able to refer back to those textbooks at any time.

“I hope that the rollout of Zero-Textbook-Cost degree programs will continue to be prioritized, and I look forward to the Chancellor’s Office helping colleges to support more students the way that I was supported with OER,” she said.

Juan Malinalli Villalobos, a City College of San Francisco student, explained that without the required access code for non-ZTC textbooks, courses are extremely difficult to pass.

“You need to re-purchase the access code in order to continue using it after the course ends,” he said. “Imagine a subscription service to read your textbook. Books become obsolete without that access code. This impedes students from continuing their education because of cost. It’s delaying my transfer process and the transfer process of thousands of community college students.”

Recognizing this problem, last summer Newsom called out the “usurious” textbook publishing industry and challenged the state “to disrupt that entire system nationwide” by making a historic $115 million investment in the program to develop ZTC degree pathways for associate degrees and CTE certificate programs across the California Community Colleges system.

However, since then the implementation of those funds has been delayed in the community colleges’ central office, as EdSource recently reported. 

“For months, the money has been with the statewide chancellor’s office that oversees the colleges,” Michael Burke wrote. “Officials said they can’t distribute funds until they finish developing an application for the colleges to fill out. That application is expected to be available to the colleges within the next month. They also needed time to build a portal that will allow the college system to track whether the free textbook programs are contributing to student success.”

Michelson Philanthropies Executive Director Geoffrey Baum also testified at the Board of Governors meeting, a group for which he once served as president.

“[The ZTC] effort is being stalled while students are being eaten alive by soaring inflation and painful increases in gas prices,” he said. “What more do you need? We have the lessons learned from the pilot program. Both our foundation and the Academic Senate have offered implementation strategies. We worked with other funders to provide the resources to underwrite a full-time position to help with implementation.

“The system office says there needs to be more study and a task force or even a reconsideration of how these funds are to be directed. That’s unacceptable while students are suffering. Please make this a priority and build out the ZTC system that fulfills the governor’s call to disrupt this racket that exploits students and enriches corporations.”

Kim added that the 2016 ZTC pilot program that Baum referenced set a standard that the entire country looks to as the model in this space.

“Using primarily open educational resources, the program’s [initial] $5 million investment saved students nearly $43 million in just two years by establishing 34 pathways,” Kim said. “Students who participated in this program also saw increased success and completion rates.”

Villalobos called open educational resources such as ZTC “a public good” that ensures California students have the tools they need to succeed.

Kim and Cailyn Nagle, Michelson 20MM’s OER Program Manager, submitted a written statement to the Board of Governors outlining the benefits of the ZTC program and reinforcing the students’ call for the full and swift implementation of Newsom’s textbook funds. Read the full statement here

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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