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Over the last decade, the price of college textbooks has soared. Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook increased by 73% — over four times the rate of inflation. Today, individual textbooks often cost over $200, sometimes as high as $400.
The College Board found the average cost of books and supplies at a private college was $1,240 during the 2019–2020 school year. That number could be even higher for certain majors and college courses. That means that nearly 5.2 million U.S. undergraduate students spend a total of $1.5 billion dollars on textbooks every semester, or $3 billion per year.
With college costs rising and inflation becoming a problem in most households, your student might be tempted to go without certain textbooks. But that’s not a great alternative. A study by the nonprofit group U.S. PIRG found that, while 65% of students opted not to buy at least one textbook because it cost too much, 94% of those students felt that it negatively affected their academic progress.
When my first child went to college, I was flabbergasted when I got the bill for her textbooks. Some of them cost close to $200 each, and the total cost for all her textbooks the first year was nearly $1,500. I was not prepared for this added expense!
At the time, students had few options for obtaining textbooks. They were forced to buy books from the campus bookstore. Even used textbooks were pricey and some professors required new editions that weren’t available used.
Today, students have many options available when it comes to college textbooks. If you do your research, you can save hundreds of dollars each semester by using the following textbook alternatives.
Your student isn’t limited to the campus bookstore. Check out other used bookstores in your area or even in their college town. There’s a good chance someone sold their textbook locally after taking the class.
Then, turn to online shopping.
It’s relatively easy to compare textbook prices online and your student should do this before purchasing any textbook.
Make sure to compare versions of the textbook to find the best deal. You may pay less for a paperback version, but a digital version may be available at an even lower price.
Renting a textbook is a good alternative to purchasing since your student will probably only need the book for one semester. Typically, students can rent textbooks at the start of the semester and return them the first business day after finals — all done with discounted prices in place.
There are numerous online websites that offer textbook rentals. The College Investor Network compiled a list of the Best College Textbook Rental Sites for 2022 and often the campus bookstore will offer textbook rentals as well as sales.
Most campus bookstores sell used copies of textbooks. Unfortunately, those copies fly off the shelves and as the semester begins, it’s often hard to find a used copy of any textbook for a current course offering.
However, there are plenty of online websites to purchase used copies of textbooks. Popular sites like Chegg.com offer used textbooks but be sure to use the comparison websites to find the lowest cost option.
There might also be book exchange groups on your student’s college campus. Your student can also check with upperclassmen who are willing to sell them a textbook or even allow them to use the book for the semester if they are keeping the book for future use.
Many textbook publishers are offering digital textbooks. These electronic versions are usually available for a fraction of the price of a physical textbook. If your student is willing to keep everything on their laptop, tablet, or e-reader, and the textbook is available, purchasing electronic versions can save you some serious money over the course of four years.
In addition, if this is a text they will refer to in the future, the electronic version should include updates.
If the college your student is attending is a member of the Open Education Network, your student will be able to access academic textbooks for free. More than 600 colleges are part of the Open Textbook Network, which aims to promote open textbook sharing practices. It maintains the Open Textbook Library which houses a resource of peer-reviewed academic textbooks online.
The textbooks are “free, openly licensed, and complete,” meaning that students have full access to the entire text at no cost.
Students at these universities can use their student email address or a URL from a faculty member to access the resources on the organization’s site. These resources include data collection tools, slide decks, instructional support, and textbooks.
If your student’s college major relies on basic texts that might be available through public access, then they should check to see if these textbooks are free online. Project Gutenberg offers access to more than 60,000 free eBooks, which you can download for free. There is no fee or registration required. They feature some of the world’s greatest literature along with older works where the U.S. copyright has expired. You can search by author, title, subject, language, type, popularity, and more.
You can also always Google the textbook name to see if there are any free PDF versions available.
Your student might be able to share a textbook with a friend or roommate, especially if they're taking core or Gen Ed required courses during their first or second year. They might also pair up with a friend and buy different textbooks to trade and use during the semester.
Even if they’re taking the class at the same time, your student can coordinate to share custody of the study materials. Better yet, they might form a study group so even more classmates can save on the textbooks. There’s a good chance that many students in the same dorm are using the same textbook.
University libraries usually keep copies of frequently assigned textbooks on reserve. However, your student may be competing against other frugal students. Even if the library requires them to only use the book while there as a reference, it’s a great place to study and focus on the course material.
If your student uses a library textbook, they will need to take excellent notes since they may not have a copy to refer to when studying elsewhere or during class.
At the end of the semester, your student may be staring at a pile of textbooks they bought and no longer need. They can recoup some of their book expenses to put toward next semester’s books by selling those unwanted textbooks.
Here are just a few suggestions for selling college textbooks:
Retailers like Barnes & Noble, which operates many on-campus bookstores across the country, and other bookstores offer scholarships specifically for textbooks.
Here’s a list from DirectTextbook.com of scholarships specifically for textbooks: directtextbook.com/articles/409/textbook-scholarships.
With so many purchase options available and ways to recoup textbook expenses, it makes sense for your student to put a little time and effort into saving money on college textbooks!