OER, Increased Unit Enrollment, and Student Outcomes: Help for Students and Colleges During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Heidi Neu Stephens
Learning Abstracts

Community college systems have invested in the development and implementation of free open educational resources (OER) as a means of relieving inequitable student financial burdens and removing barriers to completion and access. Community college students across the U.S. cite paying for college as the top reason for not succeeding (Porter & Umbach, 2019). And the cost of textbooks—especially as a proportion of income for disproportionately impacted student groups—is enormous. Fifty percent of dependent community college students are in or near poverty, with more than half having family incomes of $25,696 or less (Fry & Cliffullo, 2019). With average annual textbook costs of $1,440, this expense can represent 18 percent of student household funds (College Board, 2018). That OER save students money has been well documented (Hilton et al., 2014; Wakefield Research, 2018; Wiley et al., 2012). OER and free course materials save students thousands of dollars that they can apply elsewhere toward their educational goal. As a matter of fact, many students state that they reinvest these savings directly to education costs as well as to living expenses that allow them to pursue their education (Ikahihifo et al, 2017). With the economic hardship brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, these savings and students’ ability to use them toward completing their educational goals are more important than ever.

OER Impacts

OER can help alleviate financial stressors for students. However, there is limited research on the impacts of OER implementation in the community college sector as it pertains to the effects of OER investments on specific outcomes such as the number of units in which students enroll. In his study of over 14,000 college students using either OER or traditional texts, Robinson (2015) found statistically significant evidence that students enrolled in courses offering OER reinvest the cost savings by enrolling in an additional .27 credits (or units). This is significant for community college students, as we also know that students who enroll in greater numbers of units (e.g., 15 rather than 12 per semester) are more likely to persist and accumulate the number of units required for awards, transfer, and completion (Attewell & Monaghan, 2016; Calcagno et al., 2007; Scrivener et al., 2015). At the same time, college funding is often tied to student completion rates. If OER can improve these outcomes, both students and the institutions that serve them benefit.

OER in California

In the California Community College system, OER implementation is a relatively new effort—one that is being encouraged with great enthusiasm and significant financial support. To better grasp OER’s impact on student unit-enrollment patterns and the efficacy of these efforts in the state, the author undertook a study at a large urban community college in southern California with a diverse student body. The findings of this study come at a crucial time; community college students are struggling to find ways to continue their education as they cope with the health and economic impacts of the worldwide pandemic. Compared to other sectors of higher education, the populations served by urban community colleges are among the most vulnerable and hardest hit by the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis (Polikoff et al., 2020). While the cost of textbooks already made them out of reach for many students, even those who were able to pay before the pandemic may now also need help. Not only do OER offer solutions for the immediate challenge in terms of access and cost savings, the study shows they may also have longer-term positive impacts on completion.

Study Summary

To evaluate OER’s impact on student outcomes, the study aimed to determine

  1. If students who enrolled in any classes offering OER or free course materials enrolled in greater numbers of credit hours, and
  2. Whether students who enrolled in more than one class offering OER or free course materials enrolled in greater numbers of credit hours than those enrolled in only one.

Via an ex post facto quasi-experimental study, the author found that the answer to both questions is “yes.” Students who enroll in classes utilizing OER enroll in statistically significant higher numbers of credit hours (units) than those who do not. Propensity score-matched samples of fall 2018 and spring 2019 terms showed a difference of 1.16 credit hours more for students who enroll in classes utilizing OER (see Table 1). Furthermore, the number of additional credit hours increases in a statistically significant manner when students enrolled in multiple classes utilizing OER. In propensity score-matched samples for spring 2019 (first term in which data on students in multiple OER classes was available), the difference was .96 credit hours/units (see table 2). This implies OER’s direct positive impact on students’ ability to complete and the institutions’ ability to support that success. As colleges seek ways to support their students, there are few efforts that offer such a substantial return on investment.

Moving Forward

This study evaluated the primary terms during the second year of the California Community College system mandate that courses offering OER or free course materials be designated as such in the schedule of classes. In the meantime, OER development and use has been expanded to many more classes at the study institution, including developmental courses, those with high enrollment, and those that make up core transfer and degree completion requirements. This is welcome news for students struggling financially due to COVID-19. It will be exciting to see the longer-term positive impacts as well.

While college leaders who support OER and the faculty who implement it cite multiple reasons for doing so, we have not been able to share its connection to completion. Although this study is limited, it provides further evidence that the OER movement, an effort to increase equitable access to knowledge and education worldwide, can fulfill its promise—needed now more than ever.


Attewell, P., & Monaghan, D. (2016). How many credits should an undergraduate take? Research in Higher Education, 57(6), 682-713. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-015-9401-z

Calcagno, J., Crosta, P., Bailey, T., & Jenkins, D. (2007). Stepping stones to a degree: The impact of enrollment pathways and milestones on community college student outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 48(7), 775-801. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-007-9053-8

College Board. (2018). Trends in college pricing 2018. https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing

Fry, R., & Cilluffo, A. (2019). A rising share of undergraduates are from poor families, especially at less selective colleges. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/05/22/a-rising-share-of-undergraduates-are-from-poor-families-especially-at-less-selective-colleges/

Hilton, J., III., Robinson, T. J., Wiley, D., & Ackerman, J. D. (2014). Cost-savings achieved in two semesters through the adoption of open educational resources. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(2). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v15i2.1700

Ikahihifo, T., Spring, K., Rosecrans, J., & Watson, J. (2017). Assessing the savings from open educational resources on student academic goals. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7), 126-140. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl  

Neu-Stephens, H. (2020). Open education resources and enrollment intensity in one southern California community college (Doctoral dissertation, National American University). ProQuest. https://search.proquest.com/openview/8ba79d0b5f50d6596ff6a8a5e59e01ec/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Polikoff, M., Silver, D., & Korn, S. (2020, August 4). What’s the likely impact of COVID-19 on higher ed? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/08/04/analysis-data-national-survey-impact-pandemic-higher-ed-opinion

Porter, S. R., & Umbach, P. D. (2019). What challenges to success do community college students face? Percontor, LLC. https://www.risc.college/sites/default/files/2019-01/RISC_2019_report_natl.pdf

Robinson, T. J. (2015). The effects of open educational resource adoption on measures of post-secondary student success (Doctoral dissertation, Brigham Young University). ScholarsArchive. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/5815

Scrivener, S., Weiss, M. J., Ratledge, A., Rudd, T., Sommo, C., & Fresques, H. (2015, February). Doubling graduation rates: Three-year effects of CUNY’s accelerated study in associate programs (ASAP) for developmental education students. MDRC. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2571456

Wakefield Research. (2018). VitalSource survey quickread report May 2018. https://get.vitalsource.com/hubfs/2018%20Wakefield/Wakefield%20Research%20QuickRead%20

Wiley, D., Hilton, J., III., Ellington, S., & Hall, T. (2012). A preliminary examination of the cost savings and learning impacts of using open textbooks in middle and high school science classes. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 262-276. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v13i3.1153

Dr. Heidi Neu-Stephens is Department Head, Learning and Academic Resources, at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.