We've partnered with Achieving the Dream, OER experts and a number of funders to determine if community college degree programs using free online materials in place of textbooks can increase students' academic performance and lead to higher graduation rates.


Between 2002 and 2012, textbook costs increased by 82%, triple the rate of inflation1. Today, community college students can expect to spend an average of $1,300 per year on textbooks — about 1/3 of their total tuition costs. These costs can have a major impact on students' educational decisions, forcing some to forego required textbooks and struggle with coursework, or work additional hours to cover their expenses — options that can lead them to dropping out of college entirely. In fact, students who don't complete college are over 50% more likely than those who graduated to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier2.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject,2016
2Public Agenda, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College, 2013


The Open Educational Resources (OER) Initiative, with funding through a number of national partners including Great Lakes, seeks to address this issue by supporting colleges as they redesign courses as part of entire degree programs that replace proprietary textbooks with open educational resources. Open Educational Resources include full courses, textbooks, videos, tests, etc., that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.

Achieving the Dream (ATD), a national community college reform network, is managing the three-year grant, which is the largest of its kind. The initiative supports creating OER degree programs at 38 community colleges in 13 states selected via a competitive grant process.

Based on the potential of this project to increase completion rates at decreased costs, Great Lakes provided an $800,000 grant to support an evaluation by SRI International, a nonprofit, independent research center with expertise in the community college sector. The evaluation is exploring the impact of OER degrees on both students and colleges.

The progress of the OER Initiative is encouraging. Preliminary findings on student data and instructor surveys from fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters showed high levels of faculty interest and engagement in using digital resources. SRI’s first report details early lessons learned about what it takes to launch an OER degree program, the challenges that arise, how colleges are addressing those challenges, and what sustainable programs might look like in the long run.

SRI’s second report, released in September 2018, focuses on participants’ experiences and the growth of OER availability and enrollment. In 2017, grantees offered over 200 OER courses. Total student enrollment in OER courses grew from 3,404 in 2016 to 37,245 in 2017. SRI’s next report will cover the academic impacts and cost effectiveness of OER degrees.

The final OER report, released February 2020, provides encouraging evidence regarding the academic outcomes of students who enrolled in multiple OER courses. Additionally, it offers an important demonstration of the opportunity, the task, and the challenges of a systemic approach to OER.


Contact Senior Program Officer Sue Cui at scui@ascendiumeducation.org.