4 ways to slash college textbook costs

stack of books, a green apple and money
  • Textbooks account for about one-fourth the cost of attending State U.
  • Many online booksellers offer new or used books at a huge discount.
  • Textbook rentals and free digital books are alternatives for students.

Students carry a sizable chunk of the soaring cost of a college education in their backpacks.

Textbooks account for up to three-quarters of the cost of attending community college and about one-fourth the cost at universities, says Nicole Allen, director of the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign, a coalition of Student Public Interest Research Groups and student government associations in 14 states. The biggest cost driver has been the bundling of textbooks with CD-ROMs and other supplemental materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

If you dread getting the bookstore bill almost as much as writing the tuition check, these ideas may help cut the cost.

Shun the campus bookstore
  1. Shop online
  2. Buy used books
  3. Rent books
  4. Download digital resources

Shop online

Internet retailers often sell the same textbooks at the campus bookstore at much lower prices. The Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites, for example, offer discounts as high as 30 percent on new textbooks. Other possibilities include and the eBay affiliate To ensure that you're buying exactly the text the professor assigned, check the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, which is different for every book sold in the world.

Price comparison search engines such as,, and can help you home in on the sellers offering the best deals for the books on your list. offers a trademarked service called Multi-Item Price Optimization. You can search for an entire list of books, and the site will calculate for you the best combination of booksellers on the Internet to yield the greatest savings.

"It takes into account the price of shipping and certain coupon codes ... that you probably wouldn't know about otherwise," says John Bates, spokesman and strategic marketing manager.

Shopping overseas via the Internet is another option. Web sites such as sell many American textbooks at a substantial discount, according to the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign. Some U.S.-based online textbook retailers, including and, also list international editions. Of course, you'll have to factor in international shipping charges when doing a cost comparison (some sites automatically do it for you) and allow additional time for shipping.

Buy used books

If you can find them in good condition, used books can be a huge bargain. A new, soft-cover copy of "Essentials of Sociology" by James Henslin lists for $99.60 on the Barnes & Noble Web site, where a recent search revealed that used copies of the same book sold for $18.89. At, the paperback second edition of "Introduction to Environmental Geology" by Edward A. Keller sells for $101.35 new, but used versions cost as little as 58 cents during a recent search.

Other sources include used-book groups on Facebook and other social networking sites, student government associations and such student-to-student sites as, a project run by the Public Interest Research Groups. Campus Book Swap operates as a sort of national online bulletin board where students advertise books they wish to sell and buyers can search for the books they need.

Although the site filled a major void when it was first set up several years ago, Allen says she and others involved now put more focus on establishing local book swaps through student government associations.

In November 2008, a group of entrepreneurial students at Loyola University of New Orleans started their own online swap meet,, which now has about two dozen participating schools located primarily in the South and Midwest. The idea to launch the site was fueled by economic necessity, according to co-founder Andy Beal.

"We spent a lot of money when we evacuated for Hurricane Gustav in September, and when we came back we didn't have any money to buy books," says Beal, who graduated from Loyola in May 2009 with plans to attend law school there in the fall.


Noting that the bookstore's inventory of used books was usually limited to those for which no new edition had recently been published and that the stores set buyback and resale prices, Beal and his partners sought to offer more choice and flexibility. "We decided to create an online marketplace so that students could buy (used books) directly from students," he says.

Beal says a few similar student-run book exchange sites, many of them regional, have come across his radar since went live.

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