Z-Degrees: Can They Make College Affordable?

Textbook sticker shock may keep some students from buying the books and supplies they need to succeed. Can Z-Degrees help?

Textbook sticker shock may keep some students from buying the books and supplies they need to succeed. Can Z-Degrees help?

Once a student has been accepted to college there is a lot to think about. Getting ready for class, making sure they have their living situation and transportation taken care of, and sufficient supplies. One thing that often catches students off guard is the price of college textbooks.

I still remember walking into my college bookstore in the mid-90s laughing at the incredible prices for the books I needed to buy - $75 for a book on calculus, $150 for a chemistry book, $80 for a book on early cinema. I probably averaged $400-500 per year on textbooks. Fast forward to today and students can expect to spend $1200-1400 per year on textbooks and supplies.

Textbook prices have skyrocketed outpacing the prices paid for new homes, medical services and the consumer price index. Since 1978, textbook prices have increased 812% according to the American Enterprise Institute. 

The Rise of OER

The price of textbooks affect students in many ways. Some students will specifically avoid taking courses with expensive book and supply lists. Other students will refuse to purchase textbooks in hopes of borrowing off of other students. This can lead to less than ideal circumstances.

In other parts of the world, requiring expensive textbooks is unrealistic, especially in underdeveloped countries. The idea of creating open curriculum or “open educational resources” (OER) has been around for the better part of two decades. OER projects around the world were funded by various philanthropic efforts to create an open set of resources that teachers around the world could use – for free. As the idea of OER continues to gain traction, many universities now grant access to courses and course materials online.

In fact, you can view a list of stories, services, and projects related to OER on the OER World Map. You can easily see that the US and Germany are strong proponents of OER with over 185 organizations involved in OER for each country.


While OER was originally started to help share educational materials to those without access to developed curriculum, other schools were thinking about how OER could serve students in their colleges. The main area to combat? Unaffordable textbooks.

This is where Tidewater Community College in Virginia comes in. TCC was one of the first community colleges in the nation to take the vast number of OER out there and tailor a degree program around it. In 2014, TCC started offering a degree in Business Administration that offered courses with no textbook costs – all based on OER. This type of degree based on OER is now called “Z-Degrees”.

Z-Degrees have taken off in the last few years with more community colleges joining in. Achieving the Dream – a community college reform network - announced that 38 community colleges would adopt Z-Degrees by 2020. In 2016, the state of California was the first to specifically budget for Z-Degree programs. In fact they allocated $5 million dollars for the development of Z-Degree programs.

Because textbook costs for associates degrees are often more expensive than four year degrees and because textbooks add to up nearly 1/3 of an associate degree’s cost, community colleges are the first to start rolling out Z-Degree programs. As momentum grows, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll see four year degree granting institutions take up the challenge of creating their own Z-Degree programs.