Success Story: Tidewater Community College

Earning Tidewater Community College’s “Z-Degree,” Students Save Big on the Total Cost-of-Degree

Primary Goal

Improve college affordability with the “Z-Degree,” the nation’s first zero-textbook-cost associate degree program that uses only open educational resources (OER).


Tidewater Community College (TCC) partnered with Lumen Learning to develop and support 21 OER-based “Z courses” that make up the zero textbook cost “Z-Degree,” an associate of science degree program in business administration.


  • Tens of thousands in textbook cost savings: In the first semester alone, students saved more than $60,000.
  • Significantly lower cost-of-degree: Students are expected to save around $1,200 per year, approximately a quarter of the total cost-of-degree at TCC.
  • Improved persistence: On average, drop rates decrease by 6% in OER-based “Z courses.”
  • 100% access on day 1: Students enjoy free digital access to all course materials from the first day of class.
  • First-mover advantage: TCC introduced the nation’s first zero textbook cost associate degree in fall 2013.


In 2013, Tidewater Community College became the first regionally accredited institution in the United States to offer a degree in which students pay nothing for required textbooks. Dubbed the “Z-Degree” (for zero textbook cost), the first-of-its-kind program awards an associate of science degree in business administration. Lumen Learning provides courseware and support for the program’s 21 “Z courses,” which are designed using open educational resources.

With community college textbook costs averaging $1,200 per year according to The College Board, TCC leaders estimate that a student who completes the degree could save $2,000 – $3,000 over the course of the two-year program. This amounts to at least a quarter of the total cost-of-degree.

Planning for the Z-Degree, TCC leaders chose business administration as the focus because of this program’s popularity, as well as the availability of an innovative faculty member willing to lead the shift to open content. They also sought support from both instructional and administrative staff to ensure the project’s success. The combination of executive leadership, a faculty champion, an enthusiastic faculty team, and well-orchestrated support from a project advisory committee helped ensure the high profile project would be well-executed.

The project’s participating faculty members are impressed with the level of student engagement that becomes possible when every student has free access to all course materials on the first day of class. Instructors also appreciate the freedom to incorporate the best available educational materials from around the world into their courses. Linda Williams, the project’s faculty champion and professor of business administration at TCC, describes the experience this way: “In the past I only had the official adopted textbook to choose from. Now I have the whole world, using open courseware from people who are worldwide experts in the fields I teach. I’m finding incredibly creative and innovative approaches to concepts that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. That kind of freedom is amazing.”


The student response has been tremendous. By the end of the program’s first year, it had served 800 students, with total textbook cost savings estimated at  $128,000. As word about Z courses gets out, students are clamoring for more courses and sections to adopt the zero textbook cost approach. College leaders estimate student participation will nearly double in year 2, to approximately 1,500 students.

Preliminary data from the program’s first semester indicate passing rates with a C or higher are comparable between Z courses and traditional courses. However, significantly fewer students withdraw from Z courses before the drop deadline. This translates into more enrolled students who successfully complete Z courses.

Sustaining Success with OER

As research data validate the program’s positive effects on both affordability and student success, TCC leaders are looking to expand the program to allow more students and instructors to participate. With this expansion, faculty support remains an important priority to ensure a successful transition and ongoing use of OER for core curriculum. With analytics and ongoing measurement of Z courses and the program overall, TCC anticipates gaining greater insight into what works to improve student learning.

According to Daniel DeMarte, TCC’s vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer, “By eliminating textbook costs, the Z-Degree makes a college degree more affordable and attainable for many of our students. Our use of OER is also changing the conversation about student success and learning outcomes as we measure results and identify what are the best resources to teach a particular outcome. That is the real power of open educational resources.”


Tidewater Community College Profile

  • Four campuses and five regional centers in southeastern Virginia
  • Publicly-funded community college
  • 44,000 students
  • One of 23 schools in the Virginia Community College System
  • 11th largest public 2-year college in the U.S.


Learn More

Announcing TCC’s Z-Degree

Read the March 2013 press release announcing Tidewater Community College’s zero-textbook-cost degree program.

Video: Z-Degree takes TCC by Storm

This Tidewater Community College-produced video introduces the “Z-Degree,” a zero-textbook-cost associate degree that helps ease the pain of soaring costs for college students.

    Video by Tidewater Community College