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In recent years, higher educational institutions (HEIs) have come to rely more heavily on data-driven assessments for decision-making, including students’ satisfactory academic progress. The need for students to successfully complete courses also is causing HEIs to become more student centered by focusing resources on improving student retention and graduation rates. Student centeredness, in turn, requires a holistic approach to education—one that accounts for students’ diverse backgrounds, goals, and learning needs. Strategies to promote student success include increasing access to enhanced learning experiences, instructional techniques, and academic support services.

Another strategy for driving student success uses open educational resources (OER) for required course materials in place of high-priced textbooks. Although this approach remains controversial, it is gaining momentum. In fact, the percentage of faculty members planning to or strongly leaning toward using OER in the next three years increased from 9 percent in 2017 to 54 percent in 2020 (Spilovoy et al., 2020). But the change in perception is moot if students do not meaningfully benefit from the increased access to required course materials, such as through improved learning outcomes and increased pass rates.

OER’s impact on three biology courses

Working on the assumption that using OER in community college courses improves student passing rates, a newly formed OER task force at a rural community college in Arizona asked the biology department to pilot OER in the fall 2019 semester. The limited study comparing fall 2018 to fall 2019 data builds upon research (Becker et al., in press; Covard et al., 2018; Huntsman et al., 2020) showing positive correlations between OER and student pass rates. Consequently, the study looked at how the adoption of OER in three biology courses affected student pass rates; several institutional factors created an ideal environment for the study, such as

The campus bookstore supplied cost data for all required course materials for the three biology courses, and the college’s internal Student Success by Modality Report furnished eight key metrics:

  1. Delivery method (on-campus, hybrid, or online)
  2. Course number
  3. Section identifier
  4. Faculty member
  5. Number of students enrolled in the course as of the 20th-day report
  6. Number of students earning a grade of A, B, C, or passing (ABCP)
  7. Number of students earning a grade of D or F
  8. Number of students who withdrew from the course following the 20th-day report

The three courses—Biology Concepts (BIO100), Environmental Biology (BIO105), and Human Anatomy and Physiology II (BIO202)—migrated from commercial textbooks to OER during the study. Students earning an ABCP grade completed the course successfully. Grades of D, F, or withdrawing (W) after the 20th-day report indicate that those students failed to complete the course successfully.

Biology Concepts (BIO100)

Biology Concepts is an entry-level biology course that counts toward the laboratory science requirements for graduation. The average cost of all required course materials for fall 2018 was $146.25 compared to the OER material cost of $0 in fall 2019. The OpenStax OER textbook is downloadable, and students have unlimited free access to it. Some instructors, however, recommended that students purchase a physical copy of the text for $23. Table 1 shows the Biology Concepts ABCP rates for the fall 2018 and fall 2019 semesters.

Table 1

Comparison of ABCP rates for Biology Concepts by course material type

SemesterCourse Material TypeCourse Material CostABCP Rate
Fall 2018Commercial textbook$146.2582.5 percent
Fall 2019OER$095.74 percent

Environmental Biology (BIO105)

Environmental Biology is an entry-level course counting toward the laboratory science graduation requirement. The average cost of all required course materials for the fall 2018 semester was $235.50 compared to the OpenOregon textbook, allowing full-text downloads and unlimited free access. Physical copies of the OpenOregon textbook are available for purchase for $20. Table 2 below shows the Environmental Biology ABCP rates for the fall 2018 semester compared to fall 2019.

Table 2

Comparison of ABCP rates for Environmental Biology by course material type

SemesterCourse Material TypeCourse Material CostABCP Rate
Fall 2018Commercial textbook$235.5094 percent
Fall 2019OER$0100 percent

Human Anatomy and Physiology II (BIO202)

Human Anatomy and Physiology II is an upper-level biology course and counts toward the laboratory science requirements for graduation. The average cost of all course materials for the fall of 2018 was $263.75. An OpenStax textbook introduced for the fall 2019 semester allows students to download all content and gives them free, unlimited access. In addition, physical copies of the text are available for $30. Table 3 shows the Human Anatomy and Physiology II ABCP rates for the fall 2018 and fall 2019 semesters.

Table 3

Comparison of ABCP rates for Human Anatomy and Physiology II by course material type

SemesterCourse Material TypeCourse Material CostABCP Rate
Fall 2018Commercial textbook$263.7572 percent
Fall 2019OER$094.59 percent

Why this matters

There are two main reasons why OER adoption matters. First, the findings for three Biology courses indicate that the migration from commercial textbooks to OER resulted in significant increases in ABCP rates among students enrolled in Biology Concepts (13.24 percent), Environmental Biology (6 percent), and Human Anatomy and Physiology II (22.59 percent). While the OER pilot study compared student pass rates for the fall 2018 to the fall 2019 semesters, Biology Concepts and Environmental Biology continued to use OER as required course materials in subsequent semesters. Interestingly, Human Anatomy and Physiology II returned to a commercial textbook costing $253.00 for the fall 2020 semester, resulting in a sharp decline in student pass rates from nearly 95 percent in 2019 to 70 percent in 2020 despite all other factors remaining constant.

This limited study aligns with Zhao et al.’s 2020 findings that OER adoption significantly decreases withdrawal rates and reduces failure rates while maintaining the students’ rate of D grades. Additionally, the results are consistent with the findings of numerous current studies (e.g., Covard et al., 2018; Huntsman et al., 2020) on the benefits of OER in courses with historically high commercial textbook prices. It also illustrates the significant impact of no- and low-cost initiatives like Maricopa Millions and Achieving the Dream.

Second, student survey responses (Florida Virtual Campus, 2010) indicate that the cost of textbooks often causes students to delay enrolling in specific courses or enroll in fewer courses per semester, thus increasing their time to completion. Delayed entry into college and reduced student enrollments have a monetary value that may negatively affect HEIs. Therefore, employing OER as a student-centric approach is a win-win by allowing students to realize significant cost savings, improved success rates, and shorter time to completion while maintaining revenue for the institution.


As HEIs continue to transform into student-centered organizations, OER adoption in courses with historically high-priced textbooks may be one alternative for improving student success rates in college courses. To assist colleges and universities, state and regional OER repositories continue to expand due, in part, to federal funding through the Department of Education. But like Wiley et al.’s (2016) observation in a study of Tidewater Community College’s Z-degree program, institutional policies regulating OER use in the classroom may prove essential by providing a clear definition of acceptable OER materials and explicitly addressing issues relating to the use and administration of OER in the curriculum.

Key takeaways

  1. Students benefit from no- and low-cost textbooks through
    • increased access to required course materials;
    • increased pass rates; and
    • decreased time to completion as reported in numerous student surveys, such as the Florida Virtual Survey.
  2. Institutional policies on OER adoption as a strategy for improving student success in the pursuit of greater student centeredness may be necessary to compel faculty to abandon high-priced textbooks.


Becker, K., Safa, R., & Becker, K. (in press). High-priced textbooks’ impact on community college student success. Community College Review.

Florida Virtual Campus. (2019, March 8). 2018 Florida student textbook and course materials survey: Results and findings. https://dlss.flvc.org/documents/210036/1314923/2018+Student+Textbook+and+Course+Materials+Survey+Report+--+FINAL+VERSION+--+20190308.pdf/07478d85-89c2-3742-209a-9cc5df8cd7ea

Huntsman, S., Edenfield, A. C., & Davis, E. L. (2020). Open access textbooks in a professional communication classroom: A pilot study. Journal on Empowering Teaching Excellence, 4(1), 40–52. https://doi.org/10.15142/f59h-7q96

Spilovoy, T., Seaman, J., & Ralph, N. (2020). The impact of OER initiatives on faculty selection of classroom materials. https://www.bayviewanalytics.com/reports/impactofoerinitiatives.pdf

Wiley, D., Williams, L., DeMarte, D., & Hilton, J. (2016). The Tidewater Z-degree and the INTRO model for sustaining OER adoption. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24, 41. https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.24.1828

Zhao, Y., Satyanarayana, A., & Cooney, C. (2020). Impact of open educational resources (OER) on student academic performance and retention rates in undergraduate engineering departments. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1656&context=ny_pubs

Kristen L. Becker, MLS, MBA, EdD, is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, where she shares experiences from her 20-year career in libraries with students. Dr. Becker’s current research focuses on improving strategic planning in service-driven organizations.