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Affordable Learning $olutions for HBCUs

Reducing Costs and Increasing Opportunities

By Maria Fieth

September 10, 2021

Changing the policies and practices of higher education is never easy. It is time-consuming work that takes strategic tenacity, refined leadership skills, and heart. Nevertheless, change is necessary if we want to improve learning content and develop smart approaches to lowering costs for students.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), originally established to serve the needs of Black Americans, have evolved into vibrant and vital institutions committed to providing a high-quality education for all students. The HBCU Affordable Learning $olutions (AL$) project was created under the belief that education should be available and affordable for anyone who wants it. In order to help institutions improve access and decrease the cost of their education, AL$ combines no- and low-cost educational resources, professional development opportunities, and online tools to facilitate collaboration and empower leadership.

Open educational resources (OER) include open-access textbooks and other free materials developed by academic publishers and subject matter experts, and they can be combined with no- and low-cost commercial resources available through libraries and bookstores to provide significant savings for students. Generously funded through the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the HBCU AL$ institutions are creating culturally contextualized OER collections of original and derivative works targeting high-interest topics such as African American studies; women’s studies; diversity, equity, and inclusion; sciences; and world languages.

HBCU AL$ began in 2016 as a pilot project of the California State University–Long Beach (CSULB) MERLOT program, which hosts a large repository of high-quality OER resources and manages the SkillCommons workforce development platform. With funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, nine HBCUs across the country and one African institution have developed custom HBCU AL$ portals for their faculty, staff, and students to access free textbooks, course materials, journals and articles, online courses, and resources for career and technical education.

The HBCU AL$ program is now led by an HBCU institution, Tennessee State University, with the CSULB MERLOT and SkillCommons teams in supporting roles and with continued funding from the Hewlett Foundation. The HBCUs participating in this next phase of AL$ programs are developing resource hubs, faculty showcases, and support systems for colleges and universities to adopt and adapt open educational content. HBCU AL$ is saving participating campuses millions of dollars a year, and the project’s goal is to launch sustainable HBCU AL$ initiatives, develop resources, and support faculty OER advocates at eighteen HBCUs.

Guided by measurable results, project teams are creating a scalable model to reduce costs for students and increase enrollment for institutions. This framework incorporates a variety of proven practices and resources designed to deepen success rates across participating institutions:

  • high-level backing from institutional and department leaders
  • support for early adopters, such as weekly professional development sessions and 1:1 guidance for faculty and department chairs
  • project management and professional development tools, including those available through the HBCU AL$ Resource Center
  • systems to support project teams across departments, institutions, and states, such as the HBCU AL$ Community Portal

The HBCU AL$ support structures offer campus project teams onboarding, institutional processes, and step-by-step instructions. All AL$ project resources are open-access and available for any campus to use, reuse, or repurpose.

Adopting, implementing, and sustaining large-scale open resources projects takes thoughtful planning and risk management. It requires acute emotional intelligence from higher education leaders and faculty alike. Undoubtedly, this is big work, but the HBCU AL$ project is demonstrating how multi-state, multi-institutional solutions can be achieved through strategic planning, strong communication, and guided implementation.


  • Maria Fieth

    Maria Fieth is associate director of MERLOT-SkillsCommons at California State University–Long Beach.