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Zero-cost textbook certificates increase access for students

Books and supplies for one academic year cost the average undergraduate student between $330 to $600, according to

Sometimes called “z-degrees,” zero-cost textbook degrees and certificates are programs that exclusively use course resources at no cost to students, such as open textbooks or printed, online or multimedia open educational resources.

Zero-cost textbook programs offer many benefits for students, most notably alleviating a portion of the financial burden of higher education. By eliminating the cost of textbooks, these certificate programs enhance accessibility and equity, ensuring that all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, have equal opportunities to pursue their academic goals.

Creating programs and resources

Zero-cost textbook programs are made possible through Open Educational Resources (OER) – free, openly licensed materials that permit use, revision and redistribution.

Boise State’s eCampus worked with faculty across the university to develop textbooks and OER through the Open Education Development Series, bridging the gap between idea and practical application in the classroom of OER adoption.

Many professors at Boise State have already implemented zero-cost textbooks into certificate programs. Boise State has four certificates with zero textbook costs. Three are undergraduate certificates – social media creator, user experience research certificate and user research (UX) professional – and one is an applied public administration graduate certificate.

“The UX research certificate has been zero cost since 2018. Content draws on library subscriptions, free web content and faculty-generated content. There is no textbook that covers what we need to cover across the 10 courses, so we contextualize selected readings from varied sources,” said Kendall House, clinical assistant professor for the UX and UX pro certificates. “Because the program centers on experiential learning, book-ended by reading and reflection, the assigned content has to be directly relevant to the objectives, and that is not possible using extant publications as core texts.”

Meeting industry needs

Faculty and course instructors use OER to keep resources current without purchasing a new textbook.

“I chose to use no-cost materials over a traditional textbook because I didn’t want cost to be a barrier to learning. It gives me the freedom to offer materials that are current and relevant to the industry trends, to the students currently taking the course, and to the broader, current social conversations. Social media changes constantly, and I need the ability to bring materials into the course that are immediately useful to my students, which means continually changing resources,” said Sherena Huntsman, assistant professor for the social media creator certificate. “I recognized that asking students to buy materials that might be outdated before they even graduate would be unethical. I appreciate having the ability to adjust the course to meet immediate needs without feeling obligated to a $60 plus textbook that I required students to purchase.”

For John Ziker, department chair and professor for the UX and UX pro certificates, the zero-cost textbooks model allows the program to stay relevant to industry needs.

“One of the core goals of the UX research program has been to develop professionally relevant skills across a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences,” Ziker said. “We designed the program with professional practitioners’ input on the design of hands-on exercises.”

Cutting costs for students

In addition to preparing students for their industry, a significant benefit of zero-cost textbooks for students is cost savings.

“One of our goals when designing the social media creator certificate was to make it low-cost to the students. Currently, we are doing better than that and are at zero cost,” said Roger Munger, professor and coordinator for the social media creator certificate.

Other instructors have a personal connection to ensuring low costs for students. Tiffany Hitesman, a lecturer for the social media creator certificate, is passionate about zero-cost textbooks after experiencing the financial burden that can come from textbooks.

“I was a single parent when I went back to college, and then I was a single parent when my oldest went to college,” Hitesman said. “When I was a student, I remember one semester in 2004 when my books hit $500. I told myself it was worth it. I needed my degree, and textbooks were part of it; there was no other option. When my son went to college, he was a single parent, too. One class had a textbook that cost $375. I paid for it. It was a summer course, and he did not have enough financial aid to cover it.”

Hitesman explained how that experience led her to think more about the costs for all students and began to research alternatives to traditional textbooks.

“I started looking at OER options and slowly converted all my courses. When Roger Munger said the social media creator certificate program would use no-cost materials, I realized his vision for the program aligned with what I valued.”

Expanding Boise State resources

The continued work to publish Open Educational Resources at Boise State will continue to impact students in terms of affordability, accessibility of content and empowerment through knowledge.

Faculty, staff and those interested in learning more about Open Educational Resources can contact eCampus at