West Texas A&M will no longer require students to pay for textbooks starting next fall

By Caroline Wilburn, The Texas Tribune

West Texas A&M University will no longer require students to buy textbooks starting next fall, President Walter Wendler said in a letter to students, faculty and staff last week.

In his letter Thursday, Wendler said the move is an effort to reduce the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree, which has skyrocketed nationwide in recent years. It also presents an opportunity for faculty to explore how artificial intelligence can be used as a teaching aid, he said.

The decision comes as all public universities in the state agreed to hold undergraduate tuition and fees flat for the next two years in exchange for additional funding from state lawmakers this past legislative session.

The purchase of reference books and digital materials like style guides may still be required for courses, but Wendler said many virtual options are available to replace them as well.

The university, located in the small West Texas city of Canyon about 100 miles outside Lubbock, will also provide additional free printing to the nearly 9, 300 students who wish to have a physical copy of course materials, Wendler said. Students’ allotment of free pages to print will be increased from 1,500 to 3,000, though students may be able to print more pages if they need them, he said.

The announcement comes nearly five years after Wendler first floated the idea to do away with textbook costs in his personal website. Faculty should focus on using so-called Open Educational Resources, publicly available teaching materials that are licensed to be used for free, he wrote.

It also comes a few months after the university’s faculty issued a vote of no confidence in Wendler’s leadership in response to his cancelation of a student drag show on campus, which he called “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny.” Students and free speech advocates said Wendler was mischaracterizing the art form.

Faculty’s no-confidence resolution in April mentioned Wendler’s push to make West Texas A&M “the first ‘textbook-free’ campus in Texas” as one of their concerns, arguing that his focus on making college more affordable has “disproportionately focused on relatively small expenses, such as textbook costs, rather than more significant impacts on tuition and student fees.”

They also argued that the “textbook-free” campus goal infringes on faculty’s academic freedom to select the materials they believe are best suited for their courses and “undervalues faculty’s intellectual property” by forcing them to create open-access materials rather than developing or revising materials with traditional publishers.

The average college textbook in the U.S. is estimated to cost $105.37, and in-state undergraduates at four-year universities pay $1,226 in average a year for required books and supplies, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Wendler acknowledged the transition might be challenging but he said he is hopeful West Texas A&M will be able to eliminate textbook costs by next year’s fall semester. The university will offer more than a dozen workshops this semester to teach faculty and staff how they can use artificial intelligence and other digital tools when developing course materials.

Wendler also acknowledged some of the potential pitfalls of using AI, which may draw from incorrect or fabricated information when generating materials. But he said faculty should be able to get the job done without much effort.

“I just fiddled around with an economics textbook … and got rough outlines for each chapter,” he said. “I showed it to someone, and they said, ‘Well, this hits the high points.’”

Students applauded last week’s decision but professors expressed concerns about the impact it might have on their ability to prepare their classes.

Wendler’s message came less than 48 hours before West Texas A&M’s Faculty Senate had its first meeting this semester. Faculty Senate President David Craig, who learned about the initiative in a meeting with Wendler on Thursday morning, said the announcement took the Faculty Senate by surprise, made members feel excluded from the decision and left many things unclear.

Wendler’s letter “says that the various colleges will provide the funding in case a textbook is required, but there’s no more detail about how that would be done or whether [there] would be any other funds,” Craig said.

Craig, an associate professor of physics, said the change may put more pressure on professors, who will now have to find teaching materials that are free of charge. The task may prove impossible in some cases as free resources are not always available, especially for courses that may require students to earn a certificate or accreditation, he added.

“There are a host of issues involving faculty load [and] faculty compensation,” he said. “There’s not much detail in the memo about how funding will be allocated other than that the individual college divisions or colleges will have to provide the funding for the textbooks in the cases where the textbooks are required. It’s a very new initiative, and it raises a whole host of concerns that we’re gonna have to address.”

Wendler said several professors have expressed their support.

“We have hundreds of excellent faculty who assured me that they want to do everything they can to help reduce costs to students,” he said. “Our mission with this particular initiative is to help reduce the costs of higher education to students, because so many are concerned about what these costs are.”

West Texas A&M Student Body President Filiberto Avila said he is excited about the change and expects it to move the university forward. Avila, who is also a member of the Student Senate’s Academic Affairs Committee, said he and his fellow students have pushed for the measure in the past.

Avila, a senior digital and communications media senior, estimates he has spent between $80-$120 on required textbooks every semester.

“A lot of my professors in the past, and currently, tend to also utilize [free-to-use] materials or materials where students don’t have to pay,” he said. “I think a lot of professors are already doing this. I think with this new announcement, it’ll increase that from other professors as well.”

Removing the cost of textbooks is a step in the right direction to make college more affordable, said Kimberly Clarida, a higher education policy analyst at the left-leaning think tank Every Texan.

“Oftentimes, there are low-income and first-generation college students who have to wait several weeks to purchase the books because they are either waiting for financial aid or trying to work to save up enough money in order to purchase books for the courses each semester,” she said. “That puts them behind academically and it just adds an additional level of stress.”

Clarida said she is hopeful no-cost textbooks will become a trend across other universities in the coming years, but is wary that the Texas Legislature may do something to prevent that.

“People want to make money,” she said. “There’s no telling what may pop up, but I would love to envision a world where students aren’t having to take on these additional costs or unnecessary costs that the university could easily provide or take care of for students.”

Kate McGee contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Every Texan, Texas A&M University and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/08/28/west-texas-am-textbook-costs/.

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