San Jacinto College: College Launches Cost-Cutting Open Source Degree Program

Rob Vanya
Member Spotlight

San Jacinto College has launched a general studies associate degree pilot program that provides significant cost savings to students who now do not have to buy traditional course materials such as high-cost textbooks.

In lieu of traditional print textbooks that can cost as much as $300 per copy, students who participate in the new program use digital open educational resources (OER) course materials which are free and accessible online. San Jacinto College full-time students previously paid approximately $700 per semester for printed textbooks, which amounts to nearly one-third of the total spent on tuition, fees, and textbooks per term.

San Jacinto College is piloting OER courses during the spring 2017 semester and the full OER general studies associate degree program is tentatively scheduled for students with the start of the fall 2017 term.

Some San Jacinto College faculty were already using free OER materials on a limited basis, but the new general studies associate degree program makes exclusive use of OER material as curriculum, which is a first for the college.

The OER concept, informally called open source, is becoming more widespread among colleges and universities around the nation. “Free, open source materials have been used by many faculty around the country for some time now,” commented Mark Johnson, San Jacinto College North Campus Dean of Business and Technology.

OER degrees have been started at colleges in Virginia and New York and provided dramatic savings for students. For example, students at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College saved over $60,000 in textbook costs during the first semester of its OER degree launch. Tidewater also had a significant increase in student completion rates in its OER courses.

Johnson coordinated the launch of San Jacinto College’s OER general studies associate degree program and he recently attended a national OER conference in San Francisco. At the conference, he learned that OER classes have other benefits in addition to reducing costs. “With OER materials, instructors actually have more and higher quality materials than ever before,” he said.

With OER, rather than textbook publishers determining course content, faculty share their expertise and take the lead role as subject matter experts who choose, review, and create free and sharable course texts. More importantly, when our faculty use OER material they become heroes to students by removing financial barriers and creating equity in education in a way that’s never been done on such a large scale.

The launch of San Jacinto College’s OER general studies associate degree is supported in part by a $74,676 grant from Achieving the Dream through Austin Community College, the main recipient in Texas and one of four partners in the project. Other partners are El Paso Community College and Alamo Community College. Money from the grant pays faculty to develop courses and helps pay for faculty training. The result is courses for which students do not pay for course materials.

Courses based on open source curricula can be as effective, and in some ways even more effective, than courses that employ printed textbooks, according to Dr. Laurel Williamson, San Jacinto College Deputy Chancellor and College President. “Using open source materials provides a great deal of flexibility because faculty and students are not locked into the use of a specific text for a two- to three-year period,” she commented. “There is no issue with publishers going to new editions or making changes to an expensive text after it has been in print for a single year.”

Williamson said there is a rigorous review of all OER course materials by faculty members. “The quality of the curriculum is comparable to what is available in traditional textbooks,” she said.

We continue to maintain the high standards we expect in the classroom, but no longer does a student have to choose between buying the textbook or paying the rent. Research shows that student performance may improve because students no longer try and complete coursework without the expensive textbooks. The course-supporting materials are available at no cost. This extends the open access for students that is a critical part of the community college mission and supports the central mission of San Jacinto College: student success.

Photo cutline: Dr. Laurel Williamson, San Jacinto College Deputy Chancellor and College President, discusses the new open educational resources degree program with Mark Johnson, North Campus English and Modern Languages Department Chair.

Rob Vanya is a former Communications Coordinator at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Member Spotlight are those of the author(s) and/or submitting college and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.