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.

Rent books

Thanks to such Web sites as, and, it’s easier than ever to find textbooks for rent.

“Textbook rentals are a very good way to save students money immediately, but it was always difficult to set them up on campuses because they had such a high overhead cost,” Allen says. “Maintenance is difficult, and you need a lot of faculty buy in because they have to commit to using a single book for a long period of time. But when you look at a national Web site that is able to cater to a number of different universities and a number of different classes, that overhead cost-per-book goes down.”

One drawback to renting is that supplemental materials such as student access codes, CD-ROMs or workbooks may not be available.

Recently, a faculty member at a Michigan school took a shot at launching a book rental business for his own class.

“I noticed in looking at textbooks that they change editions and sometimes the new edition isn’t all that different than the old edition,” says Steve VanderVeen, director of the Center for Faithful Leadership and professor of management at Hope College in Holland, Mich. “They may have new bells and whistles, but those new features may not actually add value, at least from the perspective of what may be needed for a particular class.”

VanderVeen got the idea to approach the college bookstore about buying bulk copies of an older edition of a marketing case study book and renting them to his students.

“We paid between $40 and $50 for these textbooks (which retailed for about $100), and then we turned around and rented them to the students for about $30,” VanderVeen says. “The bookstore took a small cut.”

VanderVeen is no longer teaching that particular course, and the new instructor doesn’t use the same textbook and hasn’t tried the rental idea. VanderVeen does allow some students to borrow books in other courses, but at no charge.

And that points to another possible money-saving solution: borrowing textbooks from professors, students or the library.

Download digital resources

Open Educational Resources, or OER, used by teachers from elementary school through the university level, enables educators to use materials without the authors’ express permission. Resources include digital textbooks created with a special licensing agreement that allows them to be copied, and in some cases even modified or repurposed. Just like regular textbooks, open textbooks, also called free textbooks, are written by credentialed faculty members and are peer-reviewed, according to Making Textbooks Affordable.

“Open textbooks really are the fundamental solution,” says Allen, who believes this emerging development holds the greatest promise for a long-term solution to controlling textbook costs. “What they do is open up a connection between the publisher and the consumer. Publishers will create the books, but they have to make them free, and then they also can sell products (for example, printed versions of the books) to students.”

This represents a radical departure from the usual way textbook publishers do business. Allen acknowledges that traditional publishers are reluctant to “part with their current business model.” But new publishers entering the marketplace see a void that needs to be filled.

The selection of open textbooks on the market is still fairly limited, Allen says. Two current sources are Textbook Media and Flat World Knowledge. places advertising in existing textbooks from participating publishers to pay for their licensing and distribution as open resources. Students can access the ad-filled textbooks online at no cost, or get ad-free e-books, printable e-books and chapters and paperbacks for a fee. The site lists about 30 titles, primarily in business, economics and math.

Flat World Knowledge publishes its own textbooks using the OER model. The first was published in spring 2009, and 30 more are in line to come out over the next year, says co-founder and chief marketing officer Eric Frank. Starting with a focus on business and economics, the company will branch into projects in the humanities and sciences beginning in the fall. Students can get the free digital version of a book, purchase a softcover printed book for under $30, or download and print individual chapters for $1.99 each.

So far, Frank has a roster of 250 faculty members at about 200 schools that plan to use Flat World Knowledge textbooks in their fall classes, and he expects the number to increase significantly by then.

“The fact that Flat World Knowledge has emerged is really promising,” Allen says. “We hope that more textbook publishers will follow in their path.”