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Check These Tips on Managing College Textbook Costs

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The cost of textbooks is often overlooked as a major college expense, especially when other things — tuition, room and board, clothing, travel, fees and insurance — tend to demand more attention. In addition, specific degree programs can require you to spend even more on books.


For example, check out this familiar list from Which Degrees Have The Most Expensive Textbooks? that notes some typical texts used in these majors:

  • Management Science: Management Science: An Anthology: $850
  • Philosophy: Acta Philosophorum: The First Journal of Philosophy: $1,450
  • Genetics: Biostatistical Genetics and Genetic Epidemiology: $665
  • Film Studies: History of Early Film: $740
  • Economics: Environment in the New Global Economy: $510
  • Psychology: Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology: $600
  • Media and Communication: Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications: $1,215
  • Chemistry: Solid State Chemistry and Its Applications: $500
  • Business and Managerial Economics: Ethics in Business and Economics: $550
  • Physical Sciences and Engineering: Advanced Semiconductor and Organic Nano-Techniques: $570

After scanning those prices from that older compilation (many of those titles are even more expensive today), it doesn't take long to ask "Why are college textbooks so expensive?" I did some research and found some answers:

  • Academic Research When students purchase a textbook, they're paying not only for the cost of printing and producing the book, but also … for the work experts put into the books, and the process [to] ensure books are accurate and up to date
  • Bookstore Costs School bookstores can be costly to run … About 21 percent of textbook prices go directly to bookstores … That is why online textbooks are often less expensive. Online retailers don't have to pay the costs of running a brick-and-mortar store
  • New Editions Professors frequently require that students buy the latest edition of a textbook … But for a student, this drives up the cost of books because it makes it harder to get used copies and ensures that the student is required to buy the most expensive version of the textbook.
  • Monopoly on BooksTextbook publishers know that students have to buy their books, so they have fewer concerns about keeping their prices competitive than publishers of other books. Similarly, college bookstores are the most accessible place for students to buy books they need, so these stores may not try to compete with lower online prices.
  • Additional Course MaterialsTextbook manufacturers often add additional course materials, such as online tutorials, videos, workbooks and other supplements to their books. Even when a professor doesn't require a student to use these materials, a student is paying for the costly production of supplemental materials
  • Rising CostsTextbook manufacturers are under increasing financial pressure, particularly as students buy used books -- which don't directly benefit the publishers. Competition from online retailers and copying of textbooks also drives the price up because less money makes its way to publishers. Unfortunately, students' attempts to save money on textbooks may be a major contributing factor to their rapidly increasing price.

The significant irony pointed out about rising costs is that "students trying to save money" is one of the biggest reasons textbooks cost so much. This raises the question: How can college students save money on their books?

Here's How to Save

Clark Howard gives us 9 ways to save on college textbooks. Here's a glimpse of those:

1. Avoid the bookstore, except for essentialsit's the last place you want to go to buy textbooks. Even used textbooks at the bookstore typically will be sold at a higher markup than you'll see online … One exception: packets assigned by particular professors … These are printed and bound and you won't be able to get them anywhere but the bookstore.

2. Wait until after the first class to buy Some professors are just as fed up with the rising cost of textbooks as their students [and] some will work with students who can't afford to pay $180 for a single textbook … While not bringing books to class on the first day may seem like a risk … that first class day is typically spent discussing the syllabus and course expectations … you can use that information to gauge which of the following options you want to use to buy, rent, or borrow textbooks for each class.

3. Buy used whenever possibleThe market for used college textbooks is huge … there are multiple used book stores near any major college campus, and you can also buy used online … New books are worth the investment only in limited circumstances … Otherwise, go for used versions of physical textbooks.

4. Check out the price of e-booksmore publishers are offering their textbooks in e-book format … purchasing a slim e-reader and most of your textbooks in e-book format can save you from having to haul loads of heavy textbooks all over campus … most books can be "highlighted" virtually, so you can still reference certain passages or sections as needed.

5. Split costs with a friendIf you and a friend are taking the same class at different times or between semesters, consider splitting the costs of a used book … you need to be sure you each have access to the books when working on homework and going to class. But if you're taking the same course on different days, textbook sharing can be a viable option.

6. Buy older editionstextbooks are so expensive [because] they're constantly "updated" … classes with content that's stable from year to year don't really need the latest edition … used out-of-date editions can be even cheaper … older editions may not work for classes like math and science if the professor relies on homework from the book, as questions can change from edition to edition.

7. Try the libraryThe campus library or the local public library are both great options [for] texts used in liberal arts courses … Many literature classes are built around easy-to-rent classics … look well ahead on the syllabus, and to reserve copies of the books you need at least two or three weeks ahead of time.

8. Rent your textbooks onlineTextbook rental services are becoming more common these days … You can even rent e-book versions of your textbooks, which are cheaper … Just be careful if you decide to rent physical textbooks, as they'll have to be in excellent condition when you return them, or you'll pay extra fees.

9. Buy certain new books onlineSometimes it does make sense to buy books new … if your math professor will use the specific homework questions in the latest edition of a book, you'll have to spring for the new version. Or if you need to purchase workbooks … you'll need new versions of those

I've purchased many books from used-book sellers on both eBay and Amazon. Out of curiosity, I took one example from the list at the top of this article — Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology — and checked Amazon for it. I found this page of sellers offering that title — "Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology: 2-volume set (Routledge Companion Encyclopedias)" — for as little as $200.00 plus $3.99 shipping: "Used - Like New - 2 Volume Set in Excellent Condition lest minor shelf wear. ex-reference library, non-circulating. clean, bright pages." Amazon's new price is $620.

Of course, that's just one example. If you're motivated to search your syllabus and then go to Amazon or eBay, you could save yourself a lot of money, but you would have to be a careful planner and allow enough lead time for delivery. Savings on my above sample would be over $400. Time well spent.

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