Paying for College

The College Textbook Issue

There seems to be a lot of angst among college students and parents (most of whom have to pay for all things college) about the issue of college textbooks. Two main issues dominate. First, many professors do not list which books students will need for their courses far enough in advance for the students to explore the most cost-effective means of acquiring those texts, be it online discounts, book rental, buying used, or otherwise.

Second, and probably most importantly, is cost. Some larger-format books retail for hundreds of dollars. Over the years, there have been protests accusing publishers and bookstores of excessive pricing. It hasn't been a pretty scenario. Well, for all you battle-weary students and parents, there is some relief on the horizon (hopefully).


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Our friends at Consumerist.com picked up on this a few days ago. Here's their take:

Colleges Are Now Required To List Textbooks During Class Registration

Finding the best textbooks prices just got a whole lot easier now that colleges are required to provide students with a list of required textbooks when they register for classes. The requirement was mandated back in the 2008 as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, but only took effect this year . . .

. . . The best way to find cheap books is to start hunting early. You're not a unique snowflake, and there are plenty of other students scrounging for the deal you want. If you can resist the urge to highlight and doodle, consider a textbook rental service like Chegg. For everyone else, comparison shop just like you would for any other product. Grab your textbook's ISBN and plug it into traditional sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and AbeBooks. Then, look for a better price through services like Half and CheapestTextBook. If you decide to buy used, carefully read both the product's description and the seller's reviews. Once you find a reasonable price, grab it before it disappears.

In a related article, USAToday spells out some additional details:

College students may get break on textbook expenses

College students will be able to shop around more for deals on textbooks, thanks to a new law that took effect this month.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act requires colleges to release required book lists at the time of class registration. Publishers must disclose prices and revision information to schools.

Proponents say the law will give students more time to take advantage of textbook buy-back programs, book rentals and prices that are often lower online than in college bookstores. They expect it will also force professors to pay more attention to the cost of books they assign.

"Until this year, many schools didn't give the book list until the week before classes, and you really had no choice but to head to the college bookstore," says Christine Frietchen, editor in chief of ConsumerSearch.com . . .

. . . Dan Rosensweig, CEO of the textbook rental site Chegg.com, says the law will provide more transparency for students, which he thinks will translate into a boost in interest in his service.

"If information isn't available to you until the last minute, things like the Internet don't really benefit you," he says.

Borders launched an online textbook "marketplace" last week that allows students to buy or sell books with other students or sell them to an outside company. Amazon recently announced that more than 1 million textbooks are eligible for its buy-back program, which allows customers to exchange used textbooks for an Amazon gift card.

Frietchen, who analyzed textbook prices for the ConsumerSearch blog, says college bookstores are often out of used-book options. Freshmen and students taking classes that aren't part of their majors often don't want to keep their textbooks. That makes renting or buying the cheaper electronic versions more attractive, she says.

But Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the National Association of College Stores, says his 3,000 members are confident they can remain competitive. Schmidt notes that college stores can guarantee that students buy the correct edition, and have clearly defined return policies.

"If you purchased through a peer or eBay, you're out of luck," he says.

But some of the off-campus options may be too good to pass up. Students who shop at eBay-owned Half.com can search for books offered at discounted prices from sellers across the country. Often, nearly new paperback novels required for English classes are listed on the site for less than a dollar.

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If you would like to read some comments from others who are acquainted with the college textbook scene, check the College Confidential discussion forum threads that discuss it.  As one poster says:

Well if the law requires that the textbook info be given out at the time of registration, then the colleges will require the professors to get their act together and have the textbook list available at the time of registration. Professors who don't do so will be disciplined by their college in whatever way they discipline employees who don't follow the rules. Having the weight of federal law behind this makes it easier to push professors to get the information out in a timely manner.

D's college put her course schedule online, and below that was a link that lead directly to the college bookstore's sight. Clicking on the link brought up a list of D's required textbooks, by class, with the bookstore's price for new or used (if available). D could click on the books right then and the bookstore would have them waiting for her when she arrived on campus, or she could take the ISBN numbers and buy them elsewhere.

I would think for some students the ease of having their books waiting for them when they arrive on campus with just a few clicks online, would outweigh the savings from shopping around, paying shipping fees, etc. My kids buy most of their books from Half.com if they can, or we bought one of D's books from Amazon.

What do you think about this situation? Let us know.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.