When my husband and I started looking at the cost of college for our teens, we were taken aback. We knew that tuition had risen substantially since our own college years, but it’s still a shock to see tuition numbers that rival many people’s annual salaries.
Then our daughter started college and we added up the cost of her first semester’s textbooks. Holy cow.
I remember college textbooks being expensive in college twenty-something years ago. But my daughter just paid $235 for a Spanish textbook. Spanish. A language that anyone can learn for free on the Internet, and that I assume has not changed significantly over the years. Aren’t there are a bajillion used Spanish textbooks for out there that don’t cost more than our utility bill?
According to an analysis by Mark Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan, the cost of college textbooks has risen more than 800% since 1978—far more than the cost of inflation, housing, and healthcare.
So why are college textbooks so danged expensive? And what can students do to mitigate those costs?
The question of why has a several-pronged answer. In the age of the internet and the sharing economy, it seems like written materials should be getting cheaper, not more expensive. But publishers are for-profit businesses, and they’ve figured out how to use the ubiquity of the internet to their advantage.
Many textbooks are now sold as “bundles” with single-user access codes that students need to get into online materials created by the publisher. These codes may access online worksheets, quizzes, tests, or interactive, web-based content.
“Traditionally, when people think about materials for classes, they think of physical textbooks,” Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told CBS news. “But all of the materials that a student needs to participate in a class are increasingly put behind a paywall that you get to through a unique log-in that will expire at the end of the semester. Students might have been able to resell the textbook in the past, but because the access code expires, it renders the textbook worthless.”
Professors are also regularly approached by textbook publishers who market their newest—and therefore best, of course—versions of learning materials. Requiring a new edition of a textbook makes sense for subjects that change quickly, such as science and technology. But it’s silly for subjects that haven’t changed in my lifetime.
Case in point, my daughter’s college algebra text—including access code, of course—was more than $150. Algebra is a subject that has basically been the same for centuries. It’s painful to pay that much for a subject that she could technically learn for free on Khan Academy.
There are some tips and tricks for keeping overall textbook costs down.
5 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks
1. Shop around online.
The college bookstore is rarely the cheapest place to get your textbooks. Doing a simple Google search for the title or IBSN number of your book can lead you to various websites with a range of prices. Naturally, you should do a little research and make sure the site you buy from is legit, but there are more than a few reputable sites that make it easy to compare and find the lowest price.
2. Buy used books.
While the internet has helped create the online access code monster, it’s also provided a robust, easy-to-navigate used textbook market. We’ve bought many of my daughter’s books used through Amazon, and most have included Prime shipping. (Note: Through September 29, save 10% on new textbook sales $100 or more with the code TEXT10.) A few other sites that sell used books are Chegg, Campus Book Rentals, and Textbooks.com.
3. Rent textbooks.
We weren’t sure about this option, but when we found out that it cost about a sixth of the price to rent our daughter’s astronomy book as to buy it, we decided to take the plunge. Again, we went through Amazon, and the process was simple. You keep the book for the quarter or semester, can extend the time if you need to, and you just send it back when you’re done. You’re even allowed to lightly highlight and take notes in the book (though they will make you buy the book if you do “excessive” writing and highlighting).
4. Search for online texts.
Not all college textbooks are available online, but it’s worth checking. Even those of us who love the feel of real pages and bindings can get behind free online materials when faced with an overpriced book. Here’s an article that details a bunch of ways to find textbooks online, mostly for free.
5. Talk to your professors.
Sometimes an older edition of the required text might actually be usable and acceptable, so it’s worth checking with teachers. Even if you don’t have any success for yourself, bringing textbook cost concerns to your professors may make them more aware and can help other students down the road.
There may be some hope coming from Congress in the form of the Affordable Textbook Act. Introduced to the Senate in September 2017, the bill would reduce the cost of textbooks by expanding the availability and use of open educational resources. Encouraging your elected representatives to support such legislation may be the most effective way to make textbooks more affordable for all in the long run.
Annie Reneau is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone. Her writing can be found on Upworthy and Scary Mommy, in O Magazine, and in a big ol’ slush pile inside her head. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.