Nearly a third of college students must dip into financial aid to pay for textbooks, but there's a growing online library of free textbooks that can help students save money, an advocacy group says.

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A student advocacy group, along with one of the University of Washington’s top librarians, is urging faculty members to take a good look at using more free online textbooks.

And two bills in the state Legislature would promote and facilitate the use of such open-source textbooks and course materials.

The problem is the high price of textbooks. U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and student affiliates of that nonprofit, including WashPIRG, say the cost of textbooks has gone up 73 percent in the last decade –four times the rate of inflation. About 80 percent of the textbook market is controlled by just five publishers, and individual books can cost as much as $400, according to PIRG. The College Board says students should budget about $1,200 a year for textbooks and supplies.

Nearly a third of students surveyed by PIRG recently said they had to use financial-aid dollars to pay for textbooks. And when broken down by college type, the survey showed that the cost had a disproportionate impact on community college students, 50 percent of whom had used financial aid to cover textbook costs.

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John Danneker, director of the UW’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library, said the UW libraries have been trying to raise awareness among faculty members that open-source textbooks are already good, and getting better.

The UW is a charter member of the Open Textbook Network, an alliance of universities that is working on open textbook issues. The network includes a search engine that helps professors find reviewed copies of open textbooks.

Danneker praised an effort run by Rice University called OpenStax, which offers free, peer-reviewed textbooks. To the north, in Canada, the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education’s Open Textbook Project is making openly-licensed textbooks available in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas.

And here in Washington, the state’s community colleges have created Open Washington, a library of free textbooks and other course materials. “We’ve become a bit of a hotbed” of the open-source textbook movement, Danneker said.

Faculty members sometimes say they don’t want to use free textbooks because they don’t offer the same quality as books by traditional textbook publishers, Danneker said. But open textbooks are getting better all the time. “We’re highly in support of it here in the libraries, and across the UW,” he said.

Matt Stasiak, a UW junior and member of WashPIRG, said students employ a variety of strategies for avoiding having to pay for expensive textbooks. Sometimes, they’ll wait until after the first few weeks of a course to determine if the textbook is really necessary, or will buy an older version.  Recently, pirated copies — scanned copies of books — have appeared online, he said.

Stasiak said professors seem to be increasingly aware of the problem of the overpriced textbook. Some of his professors have assigned open-source books, and others will sometimes tell students that the assigned textbook isn’t necessary for the course. “Faculty seem to be pretty aware of the issue,” he said. “They want to help, too.”