According to the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study,
full-time students spent an average of $834 on books and supplies for
their college classes. The cost of textbooks varied by as much as $200
higher or lower depending on the type of college, with
less-than-2-year programs having lower textbook costs than 2-year and
4-year programs. The cost of textbooks did not vary
much with tuition, so textbooks represent a much higher percentage of
college costs at lower-cost colleges. Textbook costs also did not vary
significantly according to major.
Students pursuing Bachelor's degrees at for-profit colleges spent $135
more on textbooks than students enrolled at non-profit and public
colleges. This may be partly due to for-profit colleges enrolling more
independent students, since independent students spent about $120 more
on textbooks than dependent students. (Independent students spent
similar amounts on textbooks at public, non-profit and for-profit
colleges, demonstrating that the greater independent student
enrollments at for-profit colleges were the cause and not the
effect. In fact, independent students spent $125 more than dependent
students at public colleges and $105 more than dependent students at
non-profit colleges, but $185 less than dependent students at
The average annual increase in college textbook prices from December
2001 to November 2010 was 6.1%, varying from a low of 4.1% to a high
of 8.3%. These figures are based on the college textbooks component of
the Consumer Price Index.
Assuming this textbook inflation rate continues, the current annual
cost of college textbooks in 2020 should be about
Saving Money on the Cost of College Textbooks
There are several methods of saving money on textbook costs. These
methods can typically save as much as half the cost of buying new
textbooks from the college bookstore.
- Buy used textbooks. The used textbooks may have notes in
the margins, but sometimes this can be beneficial. Used textbooks
often cost half the price of a new textbook.
- Buy new textbooks and sell the textbooks back to the college
bookstore at the end of the semester. The savings range from a quarter
to half the cost of a new textbook. You will get more for your used
textbook if you keep it in good condition. Your ability to sell the
textbooks back to the bookstore depends on whether the same textbook
will be used the next time the class is offered. The main drawback
from reselling the textbook is that you won't be able to keep the
- Rent the textbook. Like selling the book back to the bookstore,
this doesn't let you keep the textbook. Usually this costs more than
the net cost of buying a new textbook and selling it at the end of the
- Shop around for the best price on the textbook. Often you can
buy the book online for a significant discount. The ISBN number
listed in the course syllabi and class schedules help you find the
same edition online. (If the syllabus doesn't list the ISBNs for
the books, you can find them on the publisher's web site. Also look on
the publisher's web site for alternate formats that are less
expensive, such as softcover editions and ebooks.) Many online
bookstores that sell textbooks will deliver the textbooks in one or
two days for free. Online bookstores and comparison tools are listed
- Compare the latest edition of a textbook with the older
edition. Sometimes the changes aren't significant enough that you need
to get the new edition, and older editions are often much less
expensive on the used market. The main drawback is sometimes the page
numbering is different in the latest edition, making it more difficult
to identify the reading assignments.
- Buy the ebook version of the textbook.Ebooks will save you
some money over the cost of a print textbook, although not as much as
you might expect. Ebooks also aren't a perfect solution. Page numbers
are different and more fluid than in the print versions of a
textbook. Ebook readers like the Kindle DX are just as readable as
print textbooks, especially outdoors, but currently can't display
color diagrams. The Apple iPad can display color diagrams, but the
backlighting can cause eyestrain and is more difficult to read
outdoors. Taking notes on an ebook is more difficult than writing a
note in the margin on a print textbook or highlighting a passage. On
the other hand, you can carry all of your ebooks on a single
- Buy a re-imported international edition of the
textbook. Publishers sell their textbooks at a much lower cost in
other countries. However, the bindings are usually much flimsier and
the page numbering may differ from the US editions.
The following ideas can help you get college textbooks for free, but
they can be much less reliable than buying the textbooks.
If your actual costs for textbooks exceeds the allowance that is in
the college's official cost of attendance figures, consider asking the
financial aid office to use
to adjust your student budget to reflect actual costs instead of
average costs. It helps if you provide the college with copies of your
receipts to prove that your actual costs were higher than the
- Borrow the textbooks from the college library. Most college
libraries have a few copies of popular college textbooks. Borrowing
the textbooks from the library can be particularly helpful if the
course uses only a single chapter from the textbook. However, there
are a few caveats. The circulating copies of the textbooks are in
great demand, so they don't stay on the shelves long. Even if you are
lucky enough to be the first to borrow the textbook, you may have to
return it to the library after a few weeks. Some college libraries
will put a few copies of the textbooks on reserve, so that they remain
on the shelves, but even these textbooks often go "missing".
- Share the textbooks with a roommate or a friend who is taking
the same class. Unfortunately, you may both need the textbook at the
Online bookstores that offer lower cost textbooks include the
Follet, a distributor of textbooks to many college bookstores,
students to their college's online bookstore,
Rent-A-Text for print book
CafeScribe for eTextbook rental.
Inkling is developing a new
type of textbook for the iPad, with interactive quizzes and
self-assessment tools, and sharing of notes with other students. They
also allow students to buy individual chapters instead of the whole
Price Comparison Tools
There are also price comparison tools that let you compare prices on
individual textbooks from multiple online bookstores. Some also
maintain their own marketplace of used books. Examples include:
Sources of Free Textbooks
There are several organizations that have made tens of thousands of
books available for free. These are mostly out-of-copyright books,
such as classical literature, although some publishers make some
more recent books available online for free as a loss leader.
- Baen Free Library
provides free online access to a variety of science fiction books,
such as the first book in a series.
- Bartleby provides free online
access to a variety of reference, verse, fiction and nonfiction books.
- Flat World Knowledge
publishes textbooks online for free and in various print formats (single
chapter, black & white, color, etc.) for a fee. Instructors may
customize the books for their classes.
- Project Gutenberg offers free
ebooks, including classic literature and other out-of-copyright works,
for download in a variety of formats.
- Textbook Revolution is a
directory of free eTextbooks.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-315) added
several requirements to try to limit increases in textbook
costs. These included:
- Requiring textbook publishers to provide college faculty with
information about the price of the textbooks the faculty member is
considering, along with a summary of the changes from previous editions.
- Requiring textbook publishers to make their textbooks available
unbundled from supplemental materials. A July 2005 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO),
COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases (GAO-05-806),
found that the cost of developing supplemental materials (e.g.,
CD-ROMs, instructional supplements, web sites) was a key driver of the
twice-inflation rate of increase in college textbook prices.
- Requiring colleges to list ISBN numbers and retail price
information for the required and recommended textbooks for each class
in the course schedules. This is intended to allow students to shop
around for cheaper textbooks.