Never Pay Top Dollar for Your College Textbooks

By Patricia Gorden Neill - May 20th, 2013

Frankly, the only way students can avoid the outrageous costs of college textbooks is by finding other routes of obtaining the texts. Consider this fact: since 1978, textbooks have gone up in price by 812 percent. In contrast, even the cost of medical services has only gone up 575 percent during the same time period, while the consumer price index rose by 250 percent, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

Yes, we understand that you’re excited about heading off to college, but don’t you find that 812 percent just a bit outrageous? If not, show this to your parents, who have a lot more real world experience than you at this point. Everyone realizes that medical cost increases are huge, but college textbook prices have them all beat.

Colleges and textbook publishers will tell you some of the reasons for this unending increase in cost of the books:

  • Specialized information—some courses, especially upper-division courses, deal mainly in specialized and highly technical information; textbooks for these courses are revised often and are costly as the books are labor-intensive to produce.
  • Number of books—in contrast to high school, where students might have one textbook per subject, college students must buy as many books as the professor needs to use for a class. A Survey of the Novel class, for example, might contain 12 to 15 novels on the book list.
  • Bundled with software—textbook publishers wish to keep their profits high, and so they’ve taken to bundling software with the textbooks to oblige students to buy the latest editions rather than used copies of the book.
  • Lack of used books—by updating and revising textbooks every couple of years, textbook publishers can claim the older editions as obsolete.
  • Faculty control of book list—professors might not even be aware of the cost of the book. Textbook publishers send review and desk copies to college professors to review. The publisher makes a profit every time a book gets on the class list. Some professors moonlight as textbook authors and make a nice royalty for every book sold. This isn’t a problem, or wouldn’t be if those royalties didn’t come from extensively and perhaps overly revised textbooks.

College Board estimates that the average student cost for books in 2012 was around $1,200. Price of textbooks, of course, is on top of the high rates students are already paying for tuition ($8,000 to $45,000) and room and board ($9,000 to $10,500). For clever students, avoiding the high cost of new textbooks shouldn’t be a problem, if they’re willing to do a bit of work and save themselves nearly a grand a year.

Buy Used

Buying used textbooks for college classes can cost as little as half the price of the new. However, don’t buy used at the college bookstore, because they price them higher than Amazon or Half.com, an eBay business. There are few problems with buying used, but the one to watch for is if the edition you’re getting is too old; it could be the newer edition listed by the professor has updated information you might need to know. This should become obvious in class, however, and you can photocopy the updated chapters from another classmate who bought new. Another problem could be different pagination from the reading assignments listed on the syllabus. Cagey students will catch on to this quickly, however annoying it may be.

Rent the Books

Several online services have popped up to help. You’ll need the author/title and ISBN and perhaps the year to get the correct edition. Type the information into the search function and you’ll find the book and how much it costs to rent. While a new textbook might cost $200 new in the college bookstore, you can find it for rent for $50. Keep the books in good condition during the class. Chegg.com is one of the services offering textbooks for rent, so take this route and save money. You won’t get to keep the books, but very few people keep them forever anyway.

Buy Online

Because campus bookstores have a captive audience, they consistently charge higher prices for their wares. They’re undoubtedly more convenient, but you’d be paying a high price for that convenience. Get smart and look around online for your textbooks. Comparison shopping is always the way to go for high-priced items, so look around before you buy or rent. Amazon, Half.com and CampusBooks can help you find the books you need at a price you can afford.

Resell

While you might want to keep books that pertain to your major, you can save by selling your textbooks at the end of the semester. Again, the campus bookstore may not be your best bet; many times the only money you’ll get for reselling your books to the store is 25 percent of the original cost. You’ll have better luck selling the books through Amazon and Half.com. If they’re in good condition and you’re selling at the beginning of the semester, you’ll find buyers easily, and earn nearly all your money back.

Hit the Library

The library will usually hold a copy of every textbook used in classes in its reserve holdings. Reserve means you can’t take them out of the library, but you do your assigned reading at the library instead of in your dorm room. This is probably the least convenient way around buying new books, but it will also save you the most money.

Fortunately, in coming years the textbook cartels will have to give up their monopoly as new businesses are creating ways of delivering education content in a variety of ways. The open educational resources (OER) movement is gaining ground, producing excellent materials in a variety of forms, mostly online, in many different disciplines. While campus bookstores and outrageous textbook prices may still have a few years left to rake in profits, this is bound to change. Meanwhile, you’re still in school faced with ridiculously priced textbooks, so remember, never pay top dollar. You’ll save thousands.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.