NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — As education costs have gone through the roof, the focus has been on rising tuition and the spike in student loans. The cost of text books often goes unnoticed but has a significant impact. A June 2013 report by the General Accounting Office found that new text book costs have risen 82% over the last decade—-three times the rate of inflation. According to College Board, the average student budget for college books and supplies during the 2012-2013 academic year was $1,200.

"Textbooks are the top hidden expense of college," said Nicole Allen, Affordable Textbooks Advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs). "It's common to find price tags over $200 each for introductory subjects like Calculus and Biology." When students go into their pockets to pay, the money they come up with often comes from their student loans.

A cost reduction would appear to be in order. Free would be even better.

On November 14, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill aimed at making high-end text books available for free. The Affordable College Textbook Act, co-sponsored by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) would create a competitive grant program for colleges and universities, working with professors and administrators, to create textbooks that can be licensed for online distribution. Under terms of the grant, the public will have the right to "freely access, customize and distribute the material," from these texts, also known as "open textbooks."

Durbin said a version of the bill has already been successfully tested at the state level in Illinois. "Over three years ago, I worked to secure funding for the University of Illinois to complete an open textbook project," he said in a statement. "The University, working with faculty, identified sustainability as the topic for the project and an area of study in need of such open resources. Since 2012, the textbook that was produced – Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation – has been in regular use at the University of Illinois campuses."

The test bed was 60,000 Illini students who used it in a MOOC, or Massive Online Open Course. MOOCs are a matter of controversy and an unproven educational model, pitting those who believe MOOCs can solve the problems of higher education against those who think it will help make college as it is now known an endangered species. Opponents say students will probably be less inclined to concentrate on a remote lecture than they will one that is delivered by a live instructor who can provide individual attention. Since cost reduction is the driver, one concern is that classes will run longer, taxing the attention spans of people who may not want to be there in the first place.