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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.

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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 shopping online.

Online bookstores
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, Barnes and Noble, eBay, Varsity 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 Steve Loyola.

Schim, who was a journalism major, turned to 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.

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-- Posted: Aug. 10, 2004
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See Also
PLUS: How to sell your texbooks
Budgeting for the college student
Save cash on texbooks
18 ways to cut the cost of college incidentals
Frugal U. definitions
More Frugal U. stories

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