Textbook Buyer’s Guide

Planning and research are key to lowering textbook costs

Aug 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm


ollege is expensive. There’s no doubt about it. College is also incredibly finite. One can lose the opportunity to attend easily.

One of the biggest culprits of failure is, well, literal academic failure. Thus one must be armed with all the right tools to succeed.

Textbooks, like college, are expensive. Textbooks on average equate to 5 percent of tuition expense at a public four-year college. The College Board, a nonprofit organization offering resources for college students, projects that in the 2010-2011 academic year students will spend an average of $1,137 on textbooks at public four-year colleges. This means that in four years students spend an average of $4,548 on books. That’s the equivalent of a well-equipped 1999 Honda Civic.

Wallet-crunching prices drive intimidated students to look for other options or to simply not buy books. According to Follett Bookstores, 15 percent of college students each quarter simply go without textbooks.

Elio Distaolo, director of public and campus relations for Follett Bookstores, says for many students the decision to buy a book comes down to price. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what’s in your backpack.” Distaolo says. “It’s going to be the price that frames everything.”

Price: a dirty word, an economic term, a function of money, a fluid entity, a term in an economics textbook. But this dirty economic fluid function of money is exactly what students can use to acquire that economics textbook at a reasonable cost.

Books are expensive, but there are options. The key to lowering textbook expenses and finding academic success is planning (talk about dirty words).

Students should start off by establishing which books each professor requires. The United States Higher Education Act of 2008 requires that universities “ensure that students have timely access to affordable course materials.”

Once one determines the required books for each class, the next step is to browse. The critical move here is starting early enough that all options can be legitimately considered. That means not waiting until the day before class!

There are basically three different sources for textbooks: local bookstores, rental companies and online retailers. The first thing students will consider is convenience. Books ordered online often have unpredictable arrival times — this can work out if one has planned for it. But the fact of the matter is that American college students are professional procrastinators. Infuriation best describes having to buy a book twice because of sluggish shipping and expedient exams. Basically, if you need a book soon, go down to the bookstore and get the book (the safest, most instantaneous way).

There’s also the whole money thing and the fact that college students don’t want to spend it on books. Again, plan ahead! The price of a book typically does not depend on its retail location, but instead depends on its age.

Prices of older editions of textbooks always drop dramatically as new editions come out. The latest edition typically does not vary much from the one before it. Page numbers might shift and graphs might be updated, but the fundamental information will remain. A new edition of a physics book is not going to redefine gravity.

Websites sometimes offer books cheaper than stores. The key here is browsing. Smaller books are typically around the same used price in a store or online after shipping costs. Larger books can be cheaper but sometimes the wait cancels out the $20 in savings. Again, browse.

Another option is book rentals. Book renting recently began gaining popularity, though the practice is essentially the same as buying and selling back books. Michael Geller, vice president of marketing for Bookrenter.com, says the company’s founder realized while he was in college that the practice of selling back a used book to a bookstore was basically renting in the first place.

Renting is typically cheaper than buying. J.D. Dubois, operations manager of Dubois Bookstores in Clifton, says that rented books cost an average of half the price of new books. The figures seem to line up on rental websites as well. But, of course, this is not always the case, as certain books cost as much to rent as to buy used. Also, renting a book for more than one term negates any savings. It makes more sense to buy a book versus renting it for two or three terms.

The worst part about buying textbooks for many students is the farce of selling them back. The phrase, “I can give you 50 cents to recycle it,” haunts students as they scope shelves in bookstores.

One must be crafty when selling books back and must plan ahead. Bookstores typically pay the highest prices for books that will be used again during the next term. Old editions typically fall in the doorstop price range at bookstores when sell-back times come around. Bookstores and other book retail agencies typically come onto college campuses at the end of each term to buy back books. Check with all of them. Then go back to the one with the best price and sell that book.

Book packages, which couple books and CDs or online access codes, are notoriously expensive and difficult to sell back. Dubois said that Dubois Bookstore typically does not buy packaged books back because the store cannot sell them back to students cheaply. It costs more to buy a book and an access code separately from a bookstore.

Planning again is key (cue the broken record). One can buy a book online separate from its package or rent it cheaply. Then, if needed, a student can purchase an access code online or from a bookstore.

Some courses require packaged books because the additional items supposedly supplement the class. But none are required for grades. Other classes have online quizzes and other materials that are required to complete the class and an access code or CD is necessary.

Book costs are bitter sweet. It sucks shelling out hard-earned cash for a book one might only crack once. But who doesn’t like finding a great deal? Happy hunting, and remember the money saved on books can go to some more entertaining extracurricular __________ (fill in the blank).