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College Textbooks Cost Too Much 

Home > Students & Debt > College Textbooks Cost Too Much 

Student at a college library with books in front of herEveryone knows the price tag for college rises every year, but even soaring tuition costs can’t keep up with the skyrocketing price of college textbooks.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of textbooks has increased a whopping 1,041% since 1977. The estimated cost of books and supplies is now $1,250 per year.

Tacked onto their mounting student loan debt, most students are paying more than they can afford.

Four publishing companies — Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson — control 90% of the textbook market, most of which is not regulated by the government. The publishers name their price, and if the textbook is part of the curriculum, students have no choice but to bite the bullet and pay it, or grades will suffer.

However, the truth is you really don’t need to buy textbooks anymore, when you can rent them for so much cheaper. That’s unless you plan to use them a reference after you graduate, and even then, most of the material is readily available online. A simple Google search will get you the information much faster than flipping through the pages of a worn-out textbook.

Phasing out the tradition of buying college textbooks started in 2008, when the government made a step toward protecting students from being taken advantage of by enacting The Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act (HOA).

Textbook information — such as title, author and whether it is required or recommended — must be made available when students register for a class.  This way, students can plan ahead when choosing classes and preparing budgets. Publishers must sell course materials individually, preventing expensive bundles for materials you may never need.

Textbooks continue to have huge price tags, but there are ways to save on textbooks.

How to Save On Textbooks

1. Rent textbooks

Renting textbooks will save you money and the hassle of trying to find buyers at the end of every semester. Buying and selling your own textbooks was common practice in high school when the class behind you took all the same courses and used the same textbooks. In college, it’s much more difficult. Course materials change frequently, and even students in the same major don’t always take the same courses.

Chemistry: A Molecular Approach (3rd edition), one of the top sellers on Chegg (an online textbook marketplace) costs $71 to buy used. You’ll get only $2 on a trade-in with Amazon. That’s a $69 loss for a textbook that costs $16.50 to rent from Chegg.

Choose to rent and avoid the pile of unsold textbooks that tends to accumulate throughout college.

2. Buy used and buy paperback

The only reason to purchase a book now is if you think you’ll need it as a reference later on. If that’s the case, buy used and look for paperback versions.

Human Anatomy & Physiology (10th edition), another top seller, costs $195 brand new and $155 used. The same book and edition costs $87 in paperback. You shouldn’t have to do the math to know that’s a lot of savings.

3. Go digital

Digital or e-textbooks are catching on slowly, and it might come as a surprise that it’s cheaper to rent an e-textbook than the hardcopy. The Art of Public Speaking (12th edition) costs $38 to rent a hardcopy on Chegg, or you can rent the e-textbook for $21.50. RedShelf is a retailer that deals only in digital textbooks. They have a massive inventory with books that might not be digital elsewhere.

You pay less, and you have the added convenience of portability if you buy textbooks for Kindles. Imagine, you could carry all your textbooks on an iPad to every class without stuffing your backpack with what feels like 20-pound dumbbells. Plus, the return process is much simpler. You won’t need to take a trip to the bookstore or package up your books at UPS.

4. Share textbooks with a friend

The best way to save money on textbooks is to share the book and the cost with a friend or classmate. You’ll save money and gain a study buddy to go along with it.

5. Know the return policy or wait until after drop/add

Know the bookstore’s return policy before you purchase your textbooks. If there is a fee, you might want to consider waiting until drop/add week to buy books. It’s a rude awakening when you drop a course and find out the bookstore will only refund a fraction of what you paid in a return.

Sometimes the book may not be required by the professor. In those cases, the university might force the professor to have a book in the curriculum, but he/she chooses to teach out of a PowerPoint and use the textbook as supplemental material. If you’re worried about getting your books on time, Chegg sometimes provides access to the e-book while your textbook ships.

6. Compare retailers

There are plenty of alternatives to the overpriced college bookstores. It’s easier and faster to compare retailers online. MyBeeble, BIGWORDS and The University Network (tun.com) are online services that do that for you, listing prices of a textbook from several retailers. What Kayak does for travel, they do for textbooks. MyBeeble also enables peer-to-peer bookselling, connecting students with other students interested in buying and selling textbooks.

Online book renters:
  • Chegg
  • Campus Book Rentals
  • College Book Renter
Online booksellers:
  • Amazon
  • eCampus
  • eBay
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Text Book Rush
  • TextsBooks.com

7. Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit allows students or their parents to claim money spent on school materials like textbooks as a tax credit. You can get up to a $2,500 tax credit per eligible student. Tax credits are different from tax deductions in that a credit is a dollar-for-dollar amount taken off your total tax bill. Check your eligibility before filling out this form, and be sure to keep any receipts you intend to claim.

8. Open source textbooks

Open source libraries provide copyright free textbooks online for download. Unfortunately, professors rarely take advantage of these, but it is a trend to keep an eye out for. The books are written by professionals and peer reviewed. They can be a great reference to brush up on topics after graduation.

OpenStax and College Open Textbooks are two libraries that provide open source textbooks. OpenStax has an Anatomy & Physiology textbook available for free that includes surgical videos, histology and interactive diagrams. That’s the same subject in which the textbook Human Anatomy & Physiology (10th edition) costs $195.

Max Fay has been writing about personal finance for Debt.org for the past five years. His expertise is in student loans, credit cards and mortgages. Max inherited a genetic predisposition to being tight with his money and free with financial advice. He was published in every major newspaper in Florida while working his way through Florida State University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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