Making Affordable Education a Reality

Amanda Larson works to lower the cost of education and promote inclusivity at Ohio State

Amanda Larson, Affordable Learning Instructional Consultant at The Ohio State University Libraries
Amanda Larson, Affordable Learning Instructional Consultant at The Ohio State University Libraries

Educational affordability isn’t an abstract concept for Amanda Larson.

“I was a struggling student who relied on financial aid to get my books in undergrad,” says Larson. “In order to get my books before class started, I had to go get a bookstore voucher, then go purchase what I needed at the bookstore in one shopping trip. This forced me to pay top dollar for course materials and took away from the financial aid refund that I’d use to live on the rest of the semester. Sometimes it would literally be a choice between books or having enough money for food near the end of the semester.”

“As a non-traditional student, I wasn’t eligible for some benefits like on-campus housing, an iPad, etc. and it was harder for me to get information about the services that could help me at the institution,” she says. “While earning my MLIS, I worked seven jobs to make ends meet and made use of my university’s food bank in order to make sure I had enough to eat.”

Now the Affordable Learning Instructional Consultant at The Ohio State University Libraries, Larson says that her experiences as a student informed her career choice.

“I earned my MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While I was there, I started working in Educational Affordability as the Open Educational Resources (OER) Teaching Assistant,” she says. “Up until that point, I was unsure about what kind of librarianship I wanted to go into, but after doing this important work to help make education more affordable and also more exciting for instructors and students, I knew that I wanted to continue in this area.”

After beginning her professional career at Penn State, a chance encounter led Larson, originally from Ohio, back to her home state.

“I met Amanda Folk (Head of Teaching and Learning at University Libraries) at a professional conference in April 2019 through a mutual friend. We went to dinner together in the same group, discovered our mutual love of ice cream, and really hit it off,” says Larson. “Over dinner, Amanda let me know that she’d be posting a position centered on Educational Affordability in the near future and to keep my eyes open for it. I was already aware of the great work being done at Ohio State by the Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX), so I was excited to see what the position description would entail. Once it was posted it really matched up with the kind of work that I wanted to be doing around affordability.”

That work, according to Larson, has made a significant, measurable impact for students at Ohio State.

“Within University Libraries, the General Education Textbook program, developed in partnership with the Student Government Executive Officers in 2006, has collected resources for over 150 courses and saved students $2.7 million,” says Larson. “Additionally, about half my workload consists of collaborating with the folks at ALX. Their grant offerings seek to help instructors replace high-cost materials with affordable materials in their courses. They’ve saved students over $20 million since 2015. I support these grant projects as needed and help to coordinate collaborations with librarians for Syllabus Review Grants.”

“For example, Dr. Jacquelyn Meshelemiah chose to write an OER textbook for her ALX grant in partnership with a doctoral student, Raven E. Lynch,” she says. “Together, they laid out the 13-chapter textbook based on input from the students taking the class through a Qualtrics survey. Her decision to create an OER textbook saved her students $17,000. Talk about an impact!”

While ALX grants can be used to support traditional OER conversion projects, Larson also notes that non-traditional projects can also result in major cost savings for students.

“Dr. Sébastien Proulx used his first ALX grant to have his sophomore students design and build a ‘Scrapbrary’ rolling cart that houses communal resources for design students. The cost savings were $1,600 and there were 36 students impacted in the first offering,” she says. "Sophomore students in Proulx’s studio course got hands-on experience designing a project from start to finish to create the cart. Students in the design program will be able to use the cart to share scraps from their projects or to use communal tools allowing the program to be more sustainable and more affordable for students.”

Cost savings for students is a primary goal of educational affordability initiatives, but Larson mentions that there are additional benefits to using affordable materials.

“For instructors, using affordable curricular resources opens up a lot of benefits. Their students have access to the materials immediately, the content can be more customized to what they want to teach and better meet their learning objectives, and it can open up new avenues of teaching that can’t necessarily be done with traditional materials,” she says. “For administrators, it means taking demonstratable steps towards engaging with Ohio State’s Strategic Plan around Access, Affordability and Excellence.”

While Larson’s work continues to benefit students and instructors across the university, she can’t do it alone; Larson explains that true change requires collaboration.

“There are lots of ways to support educational affordability at Ohio State depending on what your role at the institution is,” says Larson. “For instructors, consider switching to more affordable resources for your course if you have the ability to change your course materials. Consider applying for an ALX grant, or I can help you find materials for courses. For administrators, make sure that the message about affordability is consistent and a priority from the top down. For librarians, when instructors ask about resources for their course, consider asking them if they’d be interested in using open or library-owned resources in their course to help with affordability. For donors, this is a way to make a real impact with giving by making a gift that can be used to help with affordability! For example, my position is partially funded through the generosity of the Fox family. For students, keep making your voice heard when it’s a struggle to get the resources you need to be successful at Ohio State.”

“I’ve been that student who needs help with the cost of materials, and it helps inform my work now with Educational Affordability,” says Larson. “But I also believe that ensuring students have equal access to materials on the first day of their class can set them up for sustained success throughout their academic career. I also believe that instructors who choose materials that are openly licensed can engage in practices that benefit equity, diversity, inclusion and student success.”