January 30, 2023

Practice helps reduce student costs, keeps materials current

Nashua Community College has reduced costs for students by keeping tuition rates flat for the past several years, creating a laptop lending program, and lowering or eliminating the costs of textbooks for many courses.

In 2018, an NCC student taking ENGL 101 English Composition needed a $118 textbook. Since then, ENGL 101 students have had no textbook costs thanks to the development of free text materials by a team of NCC faculty, supported by a CCSNH grant.

Finding routes to No and Low-Cost (NOLO) text materials is increasingly popular. “Low Cost” refers to text materials under $40. Faculty not only develop their own texts, but they can also choose from a growing selection of free textbooks or low-cost materials available from faculty collaborators at other colleges, and publishers.

By 2020 many math courses at NCC stopped requiring traditional publisher’s textbooks, and instead adopted OpenStax math textbooks. OpenStax, published by Rice University, are an example of Open Educational Resource (OER) texts – meaning they are free and openly-licensed. Also in 2021, introductory courses in psychology and business switched from $100+ texts to course materials under $40. By Fall 2022, 28 percent of all NCC courses either did not require textbooks, or had NOLO texts. 

As required courses, Math and English have high enrollments, and create the biggest impact when converting texts to No and Low-Cost materials.

“As of last semester, 71 percent of English classes at NCC are NOLO,” said Jennifer Tripp, professor and chair of the Arts, Humanities, Communication and Design department. Now, 79 percent of math classes are NOLO as well. The term “classes” refers to all sections of a course.

“Because many students take English 101 first, they are aware of NOLO. I’ve seen it in evaluations, in the section ‘what helped you learn,’ students said it was because the textbook was free. Textbook cost is such a barrier.” Tripp led the charge to develop NOLO materials for English 101 in 2019 using OER materials along with a team of NCC English instructors: Ann Healy, Liz Fontanella, and Ann DeCiccio.

Students can use a filter to single out NOLO classes when building their schedules. They can also have entire NOLO semesters with introductory courses like English 101, Psychology 101, Humanities 101, History 101 and Statistics 101.

NCC’s NOLO work team, made up of faculty, the Library Director, The Advising Director, and bookstore manager, meets monthly. Led by Library Director Fran Keenan, the team’s objectives include tracking NOLO courses, promoting awareness, and supporting faculty who seek NOLO resources.

“The big underlying goal is to get as many courses involved as possible,” said Keenan. The library tracks all courses that have used NOLO so far, view it online. “The college is conscious of the cost of education, and is trying to keep it affordable with NOLO, and the laptop lending program – it’s all part of a bigger movement to keep costs down.”

NCC’s laptop lending program, organized through the campus IT department, makes laptops available on a semester-by-semester basis for any students who need one. Since many NOLO resources are digital, the lending program is a critical piece for NOLO’s success. As of the first week of Spring 2023, 50 students had laptops checked out. The library also loans laptops for short term use, up to a week, with 109 checkouts in 2022 alone.

“Cost savings are not the only metric we’re paying attention to, there’s also a connection to retention and student learning,” said Keenan. “Cost savings is where you start, but it also has a positive impact on how students learn, and how people can teach, especially if they can customize their texts and course materials to their classes, and even the students can help create as in some cases, their work becomes part of the course materials.” The team is seeking data on retention and learning outcomes.

Professor Tripp emphasized that quality is not lost in NOLO development. “In my experience, these materials are the same quality if not better than conventional text, and they update more regularly. Because if you want to update a textbook, the new edition comes out, and it doubles in price. We want to keep costs down for the students. This way it’s being updated in real time.” For an example, see the English 101 text materials online.

NCC’s team has devoted significant time to developing a way to track NOLO courses and share the information, and flag NOLO courses for students. “Betsy Gamrat, a faculty member on the work team, created a tool that takes the bookstore’s information on textbooks and our course list, and merges them. That’s our starting point for seeing what qualifies as NOLO. That tool’s been really useful to track NOLO courses,” said Keenan. Gamrat is a computer science professor at NCC, and had students help develop the tool as part of a class project.

The bookstore, run by Follett, participates in the team’s work as well – they also sell hardcopy options of free digital textbooks. “Some student still prefer print, print hasn’t gone away. The bookstore will provide a print copy of a text,” said Keenan. 

The college’s work team is part of a larger NOLO movement at the Community College System of New Hampshire level and NH Open, or the New Hampshire Open Education Consortium, which comprises public and private higher education institutions across the state, as well as K-12 partners.

“It’s an exciting thing, I think awareness is growing, and we get faculty, adjuncts, who know about it already,” said Keenan, “We’re definitely making progress.”