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College Textbook Costs: What to Expect and How to Save

What will textbooks cost?
A recent survey finds the average college student spends nearly $1,300 a year on textbooks. Textbook costs vary based on a student’s major. Students in English or social sciences may find they are more often assigned lower cost paperbacks. Science majors may find that many texts for core subjects run as much as $200 a book.

Why are textbooks so expensive?
Homeschoolers who are used to purchasing used books may wonder why it costs $210 for a chemistry textbook for a first year college student. Why doesn’t the professor just use a cheaper book? Why can’t we just buy an earlier edition? Unfortunately it is not so simple. Generally students need to get the current version of the book that has been assigned. Publishing companies release new versions of popular textbooks frequently, often every couple of years. The new versions may have substantially the same content, but feature different problem sets, exercises, and page numbers making it very difficult for students to use an earlier edition. This benefits the publishing company by lessening the availability of lower cost used textbooks.

What is the best strategy to save money?

When possible, buy used books and resell them quickly. The earlier you can find out the assigned books, the more options you will have. Often, used books at campus bookstores will not be discounted nearly as much as books you may buy through online sites such as half.com, Ebay, or Amazon. Students directly selling to each other will be able to sell at lower prices than bookstores. When buying used, carefully check ISBNs and make sure you are getting the correct edition. Reselling books will also help you save money over time. Reselling to the campus bookstore will net you much less money than selling it yourself online. If you wish to resell your books, your best bet will be to list books quickly after the end the semester ends. If the edition of the book changes you may be stuck without the ability to resell, but over time you will likely be able to resell many of your books.

Can I rent textbooks?
Renting textbooks is an increasingly popular practice. Students may rent the printed version of the textbook or in some cases rent a digital version of the text. Renting may be from an online vendor or through the campus bookstore.

Will renting textbooks save me money?
Sometimes it will, but you need to look at every purchase individually. Renting is sometimes a bargain but it is not always less expensive and students should look carefully on a case by case basis to decide. One factor that needs to be considered is the loss of the resale value of the book. Let’s take a look at an example with an economics textbook.

New: $189.00

Used, campus bookstore: $149

Used, Amazon.com: $120

Rental: $110

Money earned reselling book: $90

In this example while the rental has the cheapest initial price, it doesn’t offer possibility of resale. If the student is able to purchase the textbook for $120 and resell it for $90 at the end of the semester, overall cost will remain low. Even if the edition changes and the student gets stuck with the book, their cost may still be less than the rental if they end up with fines for a damaged book. Rental costs vary widely based on the type of book though, so it is an option worth investigating.

Do I really need my own copy of the book?
Before you shop for books make sure you understand if the listed books for the course are mandatory or optional. If you are really tight on funds check the university library. Some colleges keep a copy of textbooks on reserve at the library. While this may not be the most convenient option, if you are in a pinch the library copy may be sufficient. You may also find it is an option to share a textbook with a roommate.

Will my books be covered by financial aid?
For students on a full scholarship books may be included, but most students will find they have to pay out of pocket for books. Books are one cost listed in the estimated student budget created by the college financial aid office. Unfortunately most students find their financial aid and scholarships are less than their budget, and the high cost of books has some students skimping on purchasing needed books. One survey found that 65% of students skipped purchasing textbooks at some point in college due to cost.

Bottom Line
College textbooks are expensive, but savvy consumers can save money through carefully evaluating each individual purchase. If you want to save, check ISBNs and editions carefully. Comparison shop online and plan to resell textbooks online when possible.

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