M State explores options for new Z-degrees

November 30, 2020

In the near future, M State students will be able to earn a two-year business or transfer degree without ever needing to buy a textbook.

M State is on track to become the seventh Minnesota State college to offer what’s called a Z-degree, an associate degree program with zero costs for textbooks. It’s estimated that students in Z-degree programs can save nearly $2,000 a year, or a total of $4,000 for a two-year program at M State.

With a $100,000 grant recently awarded to the college by the Minnesota State system office, M State faculty will begin work this spring on developing the two degrees. While six other two-year colleges currently offer Associate of Arts transfer degrees in the Z-degree format, M State will be the first to offer a business Z-degree.

M State business instructor Marcus Lacher, who submitted the successful Z-degree grant application to the state, said the intent is for M State to offer the two degrees beginning fall semester of 2022.

He personally began experimenting with what are called Open Education Resources – the online, video and printed resources that replace textbooks in Z-degree programs – in his own business computer class several years ago. The resources he developed mean that students in the course no longer need to spend $140 for the textbook that was once required.

“College students have asked for this,” he said, adding that it’s estimated the OER initiative has saved Minnesota State students more than $3 million in textbook costs systemwide over the past three years.

Dr. Anne Thurmer, the dean of M State’s School of Liberal Arts, said students are less likely to buy textbooks as costs rise, and as a result they’re less likely to do well in their courses.

“Not only is a Z-degree a way to address the financial challenges that students experience, but it’s a way to make sure every student has access to the resources they need in their classes,” Thurmer said.

About 48 M State classes are currently being taught with zero-cost textbook options, she said, but the new degrees will mean a student can complete an entire degree without worrying about surprise costs for textbooks and materials.

Kylie Ashworth, who will graduate in December with her AA degree and plans to transfer to North Dakota State University to earn a teaching degree, serves as a student representative on the M State committee that’s advocating the use of OER. She said Z-degrees create opportunities for students, especially non-traditional students like her, by letting them focus on their education rather than worrying about juggling the costs of textbooks with their living expenses.

“For me personally, to not have to worry about class fees, book fees or class materials would be a huge weight off my shoulders,” Ashworth said. “This will help students graduate without thousands of dollars in debt that needs to start being repaid before they even step into their first post-college job.”