Textbooks: a hidden cost of college
In all the hullabaloo about the cost of college,
one unavoidable expense can whack your wallet if you're not prepared:
textbooks. Annual price percentage increases on textbooks match or
exceed the average increase in college tuition. Yet students need
them to get through the semester.
According to a survey conducted by the California
Student Public Interest Research Group, college students in California
and Oregon spent an average of $898 on new and used textbooks during
the 2003-2004 school year, the equivalent of 20 percent of the typical
cost of in-state tuition. In 1996, the average cost was $642. Many
universities around the country use similarly priced textbooks.
"Unlike the $6 novel you can buy in a bookstore
at the mall, academic textbooks run in the high double digits and
even triple digits," says Kelly Tanabe, author of "1001
Ways to Pay for College." Textbook costs are expected to increase
by 10 percent a year, according to Morgan Kaufmann, a textbook publisher.
In fact, textbooks have gotten so expensive that 43
percent of students surveyed by eBay in July said that they have
not purchased required textbooks in an effort to save money. Nearly
50 percent of these students purchase their textbook without assistance
from their parents or student loans, and they identify biology textbooks
as the most expensive type of textbook.
On and off-campus bookstores
Incoming freshman typically turn to the campus bookstore to purchase
textbooks. "For the first three years of my college career,
I bought books from the bookstore because it didn't seem worth the
hassle of trying to find former students of the classes I was taking,
or go online and pay for shipping," says Jessica Schim, a 2004
graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Buying at the bookstore is convenient -- all the titles
you need are usually in stock, and many campus bookstores offer
used versions in good condition. While these used books aren't a
great deal cheaper than the newer versions, they are cheaper and
they are available along with the new books. Tanabe notes that the
cheapest books go fast, so get to the bookstore as soon as you get
your required list of textbooks.
Mari Pillar, a 2004 graduate of the University of
Houston, bought books at the campus bookstore her freshman and sophomore
year, then in her junior year turned to an off-campus alternative
bookstore, where the prices were marginally cheaper.
Whether you actually buy at an on-campus or off-campus
bookstore, use them as a resource to gather price information and
ISBN codes for books so you can do further research and comparison
In the past few years, more online booksellers have gotten into
the lucrative textbook business. You can buy new and used textbooks
from a number of vendors, including Amazon,
and Noble, eBay,
Books and eFollett.
You can search each vendor individually or use a comparison
shopping service such as Best
Book Buys or Big
Words. Best Book Buys lets you compare the availability of new
and used books from up to 20 bookstores, including shipping, handling
and taxes, so you can get a true comparison. Your exact taxes will
be included if you supply your zip code, according to president
Schim, who was a journalism major, turned to Amazon.com
her senior year and saved 50 percent on used books, even including
shipping costs. "I e-mailed my professors and asked for the
syllabus before the semester began so I would have my books at the
start of classes, and I was very happy that I did," she says.
One reason Schim was able to save so much: She took
a class which required literature that was available more cheaply.
Pillar also bought her textbooks from Amazon her senior year but
didn't save nearly as much -- only $20 after shipping and handling.
"Buying online, you can't return books as easily
as you can at the campus bookstore if you drop a class or if the
teacher changes textbook requirements," she says. Used books
usually come from different sellers and may take longer to arrive
than new books purchased online.