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Cutting the Cost of College Textbooks


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 for-profit colleges.)

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 $1801 on average.

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 textbook.

  • 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 semester.

  • 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 below.

  • 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 lightweight device.

  • 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.

  • 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 same time.
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 professional judgment 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 allowance.

Online Bookstores

Online bookstores that offer lower cost textbooks include the following:

Bookstore Buy Sell Rent eTextbooks New and Used Sell    
Alibris New and Used      
Amazon New and Used Sell Rent eTextbooks
Barnes & Noble New and Used Sell Rent eTextbooks New and Used Sell or Donate New and Used Sell New and Used Sell Rent   Sell Rent  
CampusBooks Buy Sell Rent  
Cengage Brain New and Chapters   Rent eTextbooks
Chegg New and Used Sell Rent eTextbooks Buy Sell Rent  
CourseSmart     Rent Online eTextbooks
eBay's Buy Sell       eTextbooks Buy Sell Rent eTextbooks
Google eBookstore Buy     eTextbooks Used      
Knetbooks     Rent New and Used Sell Rent  
Powell's Books New and Used     eTextbooks Buy Sell Rent  
Textbooks R Us New and Used Sell Rent New and Used Sell Rent  
ValoreBooks Buy Sell Rent  

Follet, a distributor of textbooks to many college bookstores, provides efollet to link students to their college's online bookstore, Rent-A-Text for print book rental and 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 textbook.

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.

Legislative Efforts

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.


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