Sen. Al Franken wants college textbooks to be free, online

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Ask any parent and college student about the cost of college these days and you'll get an earful. It was even a hot topic at the state capitol this week. And now, Senator Al Franken (DFL-Minnesota) is trying to reduce the costs of at least one aspect of college, those text books.

Student loan debt in Minnesota is about $30,000; it's the fifth highest student loan debt in the nation. And it's a reflection on the rising costs of college, and even lawmakers are taking notice.

"It is a very big problem,” Franken said.

The senator introduced legislation this week to set up a competitive grant program for colleges to allow professors to write open-sourced textbooks for distribution on the web.

"At The University of Minnesota they've started a program of open sourced textbooks and that is basically paying professors there to write textbooks and put them online and so that professors and teachers can use and students can use that material instead of a $150 text book,” he said.

But it's more than textbooks. Two weeks ago Franken also co-sponsored a bill that would force colleges to put a net price calculator on their financial aid pages to show the true cost of attending school.

"The net price calculator is simply a tool that you can use online when you're thinking of applying to colleges,” Franken said.  “That a college can put up on its website and you can put in how much your family makes and all the factors that it asks for and it will tell you what it's going to cost.”

State lawmakers are concerned that new rules by a college accrediting agency will dramatically cut back on the number of concurrent college classes that high school students can take. These are courses that save millions of tuition dollars.

But Franken is also advocating steering more students into apprentice-like programs at technical and community programs.

"So that's another way I've seen… especially in the manufacturing sector but also in healthcare and IT where people start great careers and incur no debt whatsoever."

Franken is talking specifically about European model programs where the employer pays for a substantial portion of the tuition -- an earn while you learn model.

He says there's no silver bullet to reducing college costs but silver buckshot approach which is what he's trying to do.