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Wednesday, April 16, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 38.0° F  
THE SCONZ: Breaking news and commentary on campus, city and state politics


How to save UW students money: Free textbooks

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A friend of mine, Patrick McEwen, who writes regularly for North Park Street (a reference to the contributors' days in the notorious Chadbourne Residential Community), recently told me about an idea he has to lower the cost of education for the increasingly debt-trapped students of Generation Y: Free text books.

Free books must be easier said than done, one presumes. If the plan were to buy every freshman chem major a Chem 101 textbook, it certainly would be. However, in the age of the internet, the processed forestry would be unnecessary. In fact, the entire publishing industry would be cut out of the process. Instead, some entity -- perhaps a foundation funded by a rich guy like Mark Zuckerburg or a university -- would pay a qualified author to write an open-source textbook that could be used by colleges all across the country for free.

The idea would be especially useful for entry-level courses in math and science, which often cost freshmen students more than a lifetime supply of Natty Light their first semester. The curriculum in an intro level calculus or chemistry course is pretty much the same wherever you go, so there's little reason why professors wouldn't assign the cheapest option for students. And the best part is, individual professors could make edits to the book for their own courses if necessary. This Wikibooks entry on calc gives a good idea of what the final product would look like.

For the liberal arts it wouldn't be so easy. History professors probably aren't going to be keen on assigning boilerplate analysis of the French Revolution or the fall of the Weimar Republic, and lit profs will be hard pressed to find a cheap alternative to Crime and Punishment. Oh well. Gaining wisdom and losing money has always been the foundation of the humanities.

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