As a college student, textbook prices are something we care a great deal about. After all, our wallets are still in their infant stage, so we don’t have an unlimited amount to spend on books we might not even need. And since there’s been acknowledgement by many states that college should be more affordable (reviewed in my article, Your Income Doesn’t Have to Determine Your Education), what about with our textbooks? I certainly had been wondering—hoping, really—if textbook prices are getting any cheaper.
The simple answer to that question, regrettably, is that no, they are not.
You may be thinking, “Great, how’s this supposed to help me feel better about going to college?”
Well, I’m happy to tell you that, though the simple answer may not be very comforting, there is much more to this question. In fact, while the prices for textbooks may be going up, the amount you actually pay can go down.
The Joy of Buying Textbooks
I’ll just say right now, buying textbooks has never been my favorite part of college. In fact, it comes pretty close to being my least favorite—second to paying for tuition. And while there are options for affordable tuition, buying textbooks only adds to the financial stress.
I know that for me, come every semester, I dread seeing how many books I have to buy. If there’s ever an “optional” book on the list, I’ll immediately scratch that one out. Who’s going to buy an unnecessary book when they have 12 other books that are actually required? I remember one semester I literally had a book list of over 25 textbooks. So you can see why I wouldn’t even consider buying an optional one.
Of course, 25 is an above-average number of textbooks. For you, how many books you have to buy, as well as how expensive they are, is majorly dependent on, well, your major. Luckily for me, I have a relatively kind major as far as the prices go. Since humanities is my thing, our “textbooks” usually consist of classic works of literature, which come pretty cheap. So yes, even while I have a book list that’s about three times as long as most other students, I’d agree with the statistic given by Chronicle of Higher Education that shows humanities majors spend less on textbooks than political-science, health, or computer-science majors.
But even still, I’ve seen the stress that comes from trying to find affordable textbooks. With some books costing upwards of $350, it’s no wonder that there are many students who have chosen to go without rather than pay the extravagant price.
The Real Cost of Textbooks
Yes, it’s true that physical textbooks have increased in price at an incredibly inflated rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gave the numbers like this: the consumer price for textbooks has increased 88% in just a ten-year period. That’s a greater increase than even tuition costs have seen!
What’s causing the big jump in prices? It definitely can’t be blamed on a rise in all publishing costs, because looking at a chart given by AEIdeas, recreational books have actually dropped in price—a good 35% since the year 1998.
So if it’s not the publishing world as a whole that is causing the increase, what’s the deal? Generation Progress has described what’s happening. Textbook publishers already have good control over the educational domain just by the fact that their consumers (us students) have no choice but to buy what they are told to. But it doesn’t stop there. Publishers also use other tactics to keep us spending more.
First of all, there are new editions of textbooks coming out like crazy. And I mean like crazy. I swear, it’s like the publishers put out a new edition every two seconds. (In actuality, it’s closer to every three years, but you get the point.) And every time new editions come out, all of the old editions suddenly go from being worth a pretty penny to being worth about zero. It completely cheats everyone involved (except the publishers, of course), because now the new buyers have no choice but to get the updated edition, and the old buyers can’t sell.
Another way publishers keep us paying the big bucks are the bundles that come with textbooks. With these, half of the material isn’t even in the actual book. Instead, it can only be accessed online by a special one-time code. Try and sell your book to someone else, and once again, it’s almost worthless. So while you may have thought that used books save the day, in cases like these, you have to think again.
The final tactic is “resale sabotage.” Publishers have now started offering cheaper forms of textbooks that usually are loose leaf and black and white. So they come at a nice discount. But the problem is that they can’t be resold. You might be able to sell it to a fellow student, but at a much cheaper price. So the trick here is that you’re saving money in the initial purchase, but not necessarily overall.
The Good News
This all may sound pretty terrible if the upfront price of textbooks is all you look at. But I’m here to tell you that this is not the end of the line. While the situation may look bad when you see the huge increase in price, there’s another statistic that shows a happier story. The National Association of College Stores found that in actuality, the amount students spend on their textbooks has gone down, and has been decreasing for nearly a decade. So if prices are going up, but spending is going down, that means there are options for you to keep your money in your wallet.
And who do we have to thank? Technology, of course. Now there are a lot of new ways to get your books, many of them made specifically to lower student spending. It’s this kind of stuff that you need to know, so here’s a list of all the different options available to you.
Buying Used Textbooks
Even with the textbook publishers trying to make it impossible to buy used textbooks, this is still a really good option. Used books are always going to get you a better deal, and they are so much easier to come buy nowadays. There are many different websites that sell textbooks, such as Amazon.com, Half.ebay.com, Valorebooks.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and countless more. One other option is to see if your college has its own book exchange site. This is where students from your school can buy and sell books to each other. I didn’t know that this existed until my third year, and I sure wish I had known of it sooner!
As far as getting old editions of textbooks, don’t immediately rule this option out either. I know of professors that are sympathetic to the students’ case, and they will allow older editions of a book. You’ll have to ask your specific professor whether or not an older edition is okay, because some editions may have substantial changes while others may have only a few. It depends on both the professor and the book, but you could get lucky. I have even had a couple professors who used the older editions of books themselves because they didn’t want to buy the new one either. However, just to cover your bases, make sure to also ask anyone you know who has already taken the class, because sometimes professors can have ulterior motives for getting you to buy the new edition.
This is becoming more and more popular, for good reason. It’s a lot cheaper, usually cheaper than buying a used one, and you don’t have to worry about owning a book that you will never open again. Your school’s bookstore will probably have this option, as well as many online stores, like Amazon.
Finding E-books and PDFs
Thank goodness for this. E-books are so much cheaper than a physical book, and can do a lot to save your budget. If you don’t mind studying from a screen rather than from a papyrus, than this is definitely worth it—and more and more professors are thinking the same thing. I still think fondly of a professor I had who sent us an email telling us not to buy the physical textbook, because he had switched to an e-version to save us money. All praise to you, professor.
Also, before even buying an e-book, one trick that I always do is search on Google for a PDF version of a text I need. More often than not, there isn’t one, but every once in a while, I’ll get lucky. This has saved me from spending quite a bit of unnecessary money. Another way you could try and find PDFs could be to ask former students on the class facebook page, if there is one.
Having Open-source Textbooks
This is a new development that is still in the works. But it’s a development that could change student spending drastically. After reading this article, I found out that many schools are starting to use open-source textbooks, or online textbooks that do not have copyright limits. In other words, these books can be distributed freely among students, providing a low-cost option for classes.
My Bonus Tips
Aside from the options listed above, I also have a few insider tips for ways to save money on books. They could cut your costs even more than you already have!
This tip is TOP SECRET. So take advantage of it before too many people realize they can do this. But yes, this is the biggest way that I have saved money on books. I first check my school’s library (even public libraries might have them) for any textbooks I need. I have found countless e-books that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise (that’s another tip: use the library’s resources as much as possible, because at no other time will so many things be free to you!). And you can even find and check out physical textbooks for as long as you need them. This is awesome, to say the least.
Sharing with Classmates
The final tip that I’ll give is to make friends in your classes, and then work out a buddy system with your textbooks. This is especially helpful for those textbooks that are in the hundreds, even when used, because you can pair up with someone and each pay for half. Then, you figure out a schedule for who gets the book when, and plan accordingly. You could even make some great study buddies from this!
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
So, are textbook costs dropping? Maybe not in the publishing world, but in your world, they certainly can. From now on, buying textbooks doesn’t have to feel like a dark a dreary part of college. You’ve got a lot of resources to look to, and a few tips for saving a ton of money. Going forward, hopefully this next semester’s book list won’t look so intimidating.
Want more tips for college? Check out the CollegeVine blog.
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