The crisis in the cost of college came about not only because of predatory lenders, opportunistic schools and a crashing economy. Lesser things contributed: the housing bubble that began in the 1980s and has made it more difficult for students in the Valley and elsewhere to work their way through school, and—not a major factor, but one that plays its part—a rise in the cost of textbooks.

According to the College Board, the average student now pays about $1,200 a year just for books. That’s almost 10 percent of the cost of in-state tuition at UMass-Amherst for 2013-14 ( currently estimated at $13,258). And the cost of books is a low blow because students and families who have absorbed the sticker shock of tuition and housing costs may not be aware that books can take another thousand or so until the student finds that one required book may cost $250 if purchased new.

A U.S. PIRG study found that for years, publishers not only upped the costs of books by issuing revised editions more frequently than necessary even in these days of rapidly changing information, and by including other materials, such as CDs, that students didn’t necessarily want. In some cases they even refuse to disclose the prices of books to professors, who then recommended or required the books without even knowing how much students would have to pay for them.

And e-books don’t solve the cost problem, says U.S. PIRG, because they are not always cheap, are often difficult to share, and can’t be sold back like physical books.

In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring textbook publishers to inform faculty members about the prices of their books, and to offer supplemental study materials separately from books so students could decide whether to buy them or not. That law took effect in the summer of 2010.

But though publishers for the most part complied with that law, the Government Accounting Office found that it didn’t do much to halt the rise in textbook prices. Enter U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who has advocated for student interests on other issues—for example, by filing a bill to allow privately issued student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy—and Al Franken of Minnesota, where the state university has a program that makes course materials available to students at low or no cost, and has created a peer-reviewed catalogue of open-source materials.

With a small army of academic and advocacy organizations behind them—U.S. PIRG, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, the American Association of Community Colleges, the National Association of College Bookstores, the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, OUR TIME, Creative Commons, and the OpenCourseWare Consortium—Durbin and Franken have filed a new bill, the Durbin-Franken Affordable College Textbook Act. The bill would establish a grant program for colleges and universities that want to obtain, or develop, open-source materials in order to save students money (such materials would also have to be “free and easily accessible” to the general public). Grant recipients would have to report on the effectiveness of their programs in achieving savings, and later—in 2017—the GAO would have to inform Congress about how the prices of textbooks are trending.

A week before Thanksgiving, a similar bill was filed in the House by Rep. Rubén Hinojosa of Texas and Rep. George Miller of California.

UMass-Amherst moved ahead of the game of helping students save money on textbooks in the spring of 2011, with the launch of a project called the Open Education Initiative—the kind of initiative the Durbin-Franken bill aims to promote. The OEI began with grants of $1,000 per course to eight faculty members who, with help from technicians at the UMass library, developed accessible low-cost or free information sources, such as new digitized books, unrestricted e-books and streaming media, for their students. The courses ran the gamut from humanities to business curricula through the Isenberg School of Management, and science; one example was an on-line lab manual.

In the beginning, university officials estimated that the OEI would save some 700 students whose professors used the grants more than $72,000. Now the program, which has been expanded, is believed to be saving students $750,000 a year on textbooks and study materials.

Marilyn Billings, Scholarly Communication and Special Initiatives Librarian at UMass, told the Advocate that the OEI now affects 5,235 UMass students taking 46 courses. The program, she said, embraces “people from every rank of faculty, including teaching assistants, from basically every school and college, from entry level courses to grad courses. They find the students much more engaged.”

And, said Billings, an unexpected result of the program is that even the faculty are more engaged, because they can create and customize course materials. “A faculty member in engineering said he didn’t need any ‘little grants’ anymore, because he would redo all his materials,” she said. Billings added that other institutions, including North Carolina State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have called her for information about the OEI.

It’s all part of a growing movement; U.S. PIRG estimates that across the country, expanded use of open-source materials could cut the cost of textbooks by 80 percent.•