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Course Marking: No Cost & Low Cost Courses

Does your course need to be marked as either no cost or low cost by the Registrar? Find out here.

Course Cost Transparency For Our Students

Do you teach a no-cost or low-cost course?

If you're wondering, "What does that even mean, and why is the Registrar sending me a survey to fill out about it?" then this information is definitely for YOU.

Quite simply: The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education is carrying out an initiative, wherein they recommend that MA state colleges and universities formally designate within their registration system which courses OR an individual section being offered are:

  • 'No-cost' (The required main text / materials are completely free)

And which ones are:

  • 'Low-cost' (The main required text / materials cost $50 or under).

The reason MA DHE wants this to happen, is to make it very easy for students to be able to identify courses which (beyond the tuition, of course) are free or low-cost to take. The cost of textbooks and other required class materials has risen so precipitously in recent years, so much more quickly than even the cost of living that sometimes students have to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket each semester - and that can mean making a choice between a textbook...and groceries. Textbook.... or car insurance. Textbook.... or children's shoes. Or even making a choice to not buy the required text and hoping for the best...but then getting a bad grade or even failing a course.

Accurate course-marking may seem like a small thing...but having it will be a game-changer for our students during registration time, and will also provide trackable proof of the significant cost savings provided by free academic resources such as OER.

What will get your course / section marked as "No Cost" ($0)?

What the MA DHE defines as 'No Cost' Required Texts / Materials for the purpose of Course Marking:

  • Open Educational Resources (OER)

    • Free, available online from day one, openly-licensed or public domain materials
  • Free online materials

    • Free online, but not openly-licensed - authoritative 'Gray Literature' would be a good example of this
  • Licensed Library Materials

    • Free for students to use, because the Library already paid for it - eBooks, streaming documentaries, journal articles, that unlimited users can access simultaneously


Yes; you can have your course labeled as 'No Cost' even if you offer your students the option of getting a print copy of an OER that they'd have to pay for (just the cost of reproduction), available IF they want to use that format rather than read the free online version.

Yes; you can mix and match materials from all three categories.  All that matters is that, in the end, it all adds up to $0 cost to your students.

What is NOT no cost / OER (but MAY be low-cost):

  • Your main text is still commercial and you just use some OER on the side as a supplement
  • You told your students to buy a commercial textbook but put a copy on reserve - UNLESS unlimited students can access it simultaneously
  • You're using an OER but your students still have to pay for an access code to an online course or homework platform
  • Your course is using an 'Inclusive Access' or 'First Day' prepaid via student fees product
  • Your course uses certain 3rd-party bookstore products (e.g.: BNC OER+) that may include OER but are too proprietary about it and do NOT allow continual, free access to the public
  • Courses / sections (e.g.: Yoga) that have never had any required text / materials to begin with

What will get your course / section marked as Low Cost ($50 or less)?

Well...the final cost to students for the required, main course text or $50 or less.

That's it.  But the definition is firm. No: "But it's just $70 total!" Or "It's literally just $1 over the limit!"

$50 or under. If you want to be really technical, between $00.01 and $50.00.

By the way, if you teach a bundled (got to take both) lecture and lab, the total cost for both parts needs to be $50 or under to gain the low cost designation.

What types of materials might you use to attain this 'Low cost' label?

If you're using an inclusive access product, and it's $50 or under - get it labeled low cost.  Because it is.

Same for any format - textbooks or bundles of smaller books, new or used, course packs from the bookstore, required online homework platforms (some are not that expensive), whatever it may be - if it totals $50 or under, get it labeled.

If you're REALLY close to the $50 or under cost, but not quite there yet, try switching some of your commercial book-based readings with some OER or library resources to bring down your over-all course cost.  The Library's always happy to assist you with this.

Low cost might not be quite as nice as completely free, but it's also nothing to sneeze at!  Anyway that we can lower the final cost for our students of taking a course is a win, so don't let perfection be the enemy of the good.


NOTE: Yes; textbook cost, especially used, can vary widely. So, the DHE defines the 'official' cost of a textbook as:

  • The pre-tax retail price at the campus bookstore OR the one charged if ordered directly from the publisher (whichever is lower), whether new or used material
  • Bookstore or publisher has to have enough - all students HAVE to be able to get their $50 or under copy
  • No pro-rating the cost based on credits or how many sections - you can't claim an $100 text is 'really only $50 for each semester'.
  • Don't use the used textbook online seller sites to determine your textbook's retail cost - the supply and cost varies too widely.

BTW - What is OER?

The Board of Higher Education adopted this definition of OER on October 2019:

"Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”

For more information on the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education OER strategic initiative, see their website.

And the Whittemore Library has its own OER Guide.

Instructional Materials

Instructional materials are defined as:
  • Textbooks, eBooks, websites, software programs, apps, courseware packages, access codes to homework sites
Instructional materials do NOT include:
  • Tools and supplies cost, such as lab coat, goggles, notebook paper, art materials, thumb drives, or calculators
  • Auxiliary fees such as lab fee, technology fee, or eLearning fee
  • Inclusive Access or First Day programs
The rising costs of textbooks

OER Advisory Council members have concerns with the rising costs of non-instructional materials and a desire to provide transparency and equity for students. The scope of this guide does not address this topic, and council members have recommended that institutions also consider providing transparency regarding those costs.