At six Minnesota community colleges, students can now complete a two-year degree without buying a single textbook.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Lake Superior College, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Mesabi Range College and Northland Community and Technical College began offering “Z-degrees” this fall, joining Central Lakes College in offering an associate of arts degree program composed entirely of courses that use free educational material.

The shift within the Minnesota State college system coincides with a growing national movement away from costly textbooks, which can add hundreds of dollars per semester to the tabs of students who are already deep in debt.

“It’s an example of an innovation that can save students thousands of dollars over the course of their education,” said Kim Lynch, Minnesota State’s senior system director of educational innovations.

The average Minnesota State student spends $1,000 a year on textbooks. For low-income students, textbook costs can be especially burdensome, forcing them to choose between essential course materials and their next meal, Lynch said. Over the years, more students have opted to not buy the books and see if they can succeed without them.

In a 2017 survey of Anoka-Ramsey students, 44% said they registered for fewer courses because of textbook costs, and more than a quarter reported dropping a course because the required readings were too pricey.

“Textbook costs were really negatively impacting our students’ access, success and completion,” said Shannon Kirkeide, Anoka-Ramsey’s dean of academic and community outreach.

Z-degrees, short for zero-textbook-cost associate programs, were launched to address this problem. Those enrolled in the two-year degrees can save up to $2,000, according to Minnesota State.

Altogether, the five new community college programs are projected to save students $1.4 million annually.

Faculty teaching Z-degree courses use open educational resources — freely available and openly licensed materials that include everything from textbooks and learning modules to streaming videos and software.

Instructors can use and revise existing materials or create their own.

Minnesota State created a digital repository, called Opendora, where faculty and librarians can access and share material.

Students at the community colleges can print materials for a low cost if they want a physical copy.

Central Lakes became the first school in the Minnesota State system to launch a Z-degree in 2017.

The college has continued to ramp up its use of free learning materials; out of 563 course sections being taught this fall, 213 are using open educational resources.

A growing number of Central Lakes faculty have come to embrace the alternative texts, with some holding discussions to introduce the concept to more colleagues.

Central Lakes is also helping its high school partners find cheaper texts for students earning college credit, said Martha Kuehn, dean of liberal arts and science.

“The high schools are really on board with [open educational resources] because it helps their budgets,” Kuehn said.

Anoka-Ramsey began using free materials years ago but did not have enough courses with zero textbook costs to form an entire degree until this academic year.

Initially, some faculty worried the free material might not be up to their standards, Kirkeide said.

A college task force helped dispel those concerns over time. This fall, students at the college’s Cambridge and Coon Rapids campuses can choose from 61 Z-degree courses.

“We are … really proud of the high quality that they provide and the savings it offers to our students,” Kirkeide said.

More Z-degree programs are in the works at Century College, Hibbing Community College, Inver Hills Community College and Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

Minnesota State leaders hope to scale up even further, Lynch said.

“We do see this as more than just cost savings,” she said. “It’s also about addressing educational equity.”