At Minnesota state colleges, students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks alone.

But in Brainerd, they can earn a two-year degree without paying a penny for books.

Central Lakes College has joined a growing national movement to ditch pricey textbooks in favor of material that can be found online for free.

This semester, it launched one of the state’s first “Z-degrees,” meaning that all the required readings — in this case, for an associate of arts degree — are available at zero cost to students.

“For a lot of students that are living in poverty, every penny counts,” said Martha Kuehn, dean of liberal arts and sciences at Central Lakes, a community and technical college with 6,000 students. “It really makes a big difference for them if we can reduce or eliminate their textbook costs.”

Already, nearly 10 percent of college instructors nationwide say they use free online textbooks in their courses, according to a 2017 report by the Babson Survey Research Group.

But only a few colleges have gone as far as Central Lakes, creating an entire degree program using free material, also known as open educational resources. The University of Northwestern, a small Christian school in St. Paul, is another one; it has offered a Z-degree in its online business program since 2016.

This month, Central Lakes published its first “Zero Textbook Cost Course Guide,” which includes classes in math, philosophy, history, biology, the arts and more.

Central Lakes began exploring the idea several years ago, Kuehn said, when she and her colleagues first started hearing about the open-textbook movement. They learned, among other things, that the University of Minnesota was building a virtual repository of online textbooks, called the Open Textbook Library. Many of those books — from “Introduction to Psychology” to “Human Anatomy” — were written by experts, with funding from foundations or colleges, with the express purpose of sharing the content freely with the world, especially college students.

Today, the U’s virtual library has about 450 online textbooks, said David Ernst, the executive director. It’s one way, he says, to blunt the sticker-shock of traditional textbooks, which have soared in price and now average nearly $100 apiece, according to the 2017 Babson survey.

Karen Pikula, who teaches psychology at Central Lakes, said that textbook costs are so high that many students either don’t buy the books at all, or start the semester without them and struggle to keep up. “I think our students are crying out for help,” she said.

Now, instead of assigning a $200 textbook, Pikula uses online textbooks in most of her classes. She’s leading a series of seminars to encourage instructors throughout the Minnesota State system to consider making the same change.

Not all get on bandwagon

So far, about 20 faculty members at Central Lakes have revamped their courses to eliminate traditional textbooks and use online resources, according to Kuehn. She says the change has already saved students more than $100,000.

For students who want to hold a book in their hands, that’s still an option. Central Lakes has created a “print on demand” service that can print the online textbooks for as little as $11 or $12, according to Pikula.

Not all college instructors have warmed up to the idea, though, partly out of concerns about quality.

Their job, says Kevin Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty union, is to find the best way to teach the material, and that includes the textbook. “It’s not like there’s some sort of personal reason for a faculty member to say, ‘Oh, let’s find the most expensive textbook,’ ” he said “It’s really about the quality of the learning experience.”

Lindstrom said instructors should decide for themselves if the free textbooks are up to their standards. “You shouldn’t compromise the quality of your [course] over the cost of a textbook,” he said.

While he said he’s sympathetic to concerns about college costs, textbooks are only a fraction of the problem. “We really ought to be talking about the real giant issue,” he said, and that’s tuition. “If you made every textbook free, college would still be too expensive for many students.”

‘It would mean a lot’

But Dillon Forcier, a student at Lake Superior College, says he’s frustrated that some instructors aren’t more eager to give open educational resources (OER) a try. “I don’t think faculty sometimes realize how much their textbooks actually cost,” he said. “When you look at the cost of things, why not use an OER?”

Forcier, 19, has been promoting open textbooks through a student group, LeadMN, which represents 180,000 students at Minnesota’s two-year public colleges. “It would mean a lot to our students to have a Z-degree at every one of our college campuses,” he said.

Pikula, who helped spearhead the transition at Central Lakes, admits that it wasn’t easy. “It is a burden. It takes time,” she said, for faculty members to adapt their courses to the new material.

And even supporters worry about ensuring that the textbooks stay current. “We have to be careful that it isn’t getting stale and out of date,” said Kuehn.

She notes that faculty members have the freedom to edit and customize the online material themselves. But that, too, takes time.

Still, Kuehn is optimistic that the Z-degree will give her college a competitive advantage.

“I hope it’s going to result in a boost in our enrollment,” she said, “when students learn that they can earn an AA degree without buying a textbook.”