A Free Lunch: CSU Channel Islands Offers the CSU’s First “Z-Majors”

Everyone knows: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”  But starting this Fall, there will be such a thing as a textbook-free major at CSU Channel Islands (CI).  And it couldn’t come at a better time for CI’s student body.

Over the past three decades, textbook prices have outpaced inflation 3-to-1.  During this same time period, the cost of college textbooks increased nearly 3x times the rate of home prices and nearly 4x times the rate of medical expenses.  As a result, the average undergraduate today spends $1,200 a year on course materials alone – a number that exceeds the total cost of annual tuition at some universities.

If textbooks were alive, they’d have already eaten our students for lunch.

Because of rising costs, CSU recently launched its Affordable Learning Solutions Initiative (AL$) – a system-wide effort to reduce textbook expenses. Response to the AL$ initiative on CI’s campus has been overwhelmingly positive, evidencing the innovative spirit of the university’s faculty and administration, as well as their genuine concern for student wellbeing. Through a campus initiative called openCI, more than 50 faculty have committed to redesigning their courses with no/low-cost materials. These efforts have already saved CI students over $400,000 in the past two years alone.

If that weren’t enough, CI’s Communication and Education programs are each taking this initiative one step further. Faculty in these programs are not only working to lower textbook costs for their students, but have also committed to offering a pathway through their major that requires no textbook purchases at all. Often called a “Z-Majors” (with “Z” referring to the zero dollars required for textbooks), CI’s Communication and Education programs will be the first two Z-Majors in the entire CSU system – and quite possibly, the first four-year Z-Majors in the entire nation.

Shante Morgan, a Lecturer in CI’s Communication program reflected on its new Z-Majors efforts by writing: “I was a first-generation college student who had to work to support myself through college. I can remember times when I had to pick between a book and a meal. Many of my students are first-generation as well, so the efforts we’re taking here at CI supports student success. They can worry less and focus more on their education.”

CI’s faculty aren’t replacing the need to purchase textbooks by removing them from their curriculum altogether. Rather, they’re simply replacing overpriced books with Open Education Resources (OERs) and other no/low-cost course materials: e-textbooks, library materials, online courseware, TED Talks, government reports, Kahn Academy resources, open access journals, or even original content like what Crissy Spencer and her colleagues at Georgia Tech created for Biology 1510, to name but a few.

Study after study after study has found OERs and other no/low-cost materials to be at least as good, if not decidedly better, than traditionally published textbooks. The result is more timely and relevant readings, since the publication process can take years to complete. Replacing traditional textbooks can also result in content-specific readings that more closely align with a course’s student learning outcomes.

As Program Chair for Communication, Dr. Christina Smith, comments on the faculty’s positive response to CI’s Z-Majors efforts, as well as the high-quality course materials made possible via OER: “I’m so impressed by how engaged our faculty have been in this process. They’ve worked hard to create materials that will be useful and accessible for all our students without sacrificing the academic integrity of our courses.”

In the words of yet another CI faculty member, Dr. Megan Kenny Feister, “I am proud to be associated with a university that puts student success first, and is on the leading edge of innovation in helping our students to complete their degrees.”

To this end, CI’s Communication and Education programs aren’t only saving students money and offering better course content in the process, but they also hope to serve as positive examples for others in the CSU and beyond.

So, the next time someone tries to tell you, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” just smile, point to CI, and tell them: “Lunch is on me.”

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