Cutting the Cost of College Textbooks

My daughter called me yesterday to complain about the cost of her college textbooks.

One of Caitlin’s upper level Spanish books was going to cost her close to $200. She was thrilled, however, when she found a used older textbook edition — missing the CD — for a mere $15 online. Ironically, it’s the frugality of students like Caitlin which has prompted new college textbooks to be priced like car payments.

Here’s the problem:  Before Amazon.com and scores of used online booksellers existed, kids were forced to buy new textbooks from their campus bookstores. Because a single bookstore controlled prices, the cost of a used textbook wasn’t that much less than a new copy.  That led to many kids purchasing new textbooks every semester which kept the academic publishers happy.

Now, however, Caitlin and millions of other kids are trying to get the best deals possible from virtual sellers literally anywhere in the world. This ironically has led publishers to fight back with higher prices. New science and math textbooks today typically cost close to $180 and few new titles in other disciplines are priced at less than $120.

When I was in college, a publisher might not revise an edition for five or six years or more. But now publishers are rolling out revised editions frequently to force kids to buy new. Professors aren’t changing the way they teach calculus or Shakespeare, but publishers are desperate to make money. The publishers have jacked up the prices because they only get one shot to make a profit with students before their textbooks end up in the secondary used market.

There are encouraging signs, however, that the textbook business model will soon improve. Pilot textbook projects have begun popping up on various campuses including the University of Texas and the University System of Ohio. The Texas experiment was triggered by a thoughtful piece on the textbook racket by Michael Granof, a business professor at the University of Texas. You can view his piece, entitled, Course Requirement: Extortion, here.

Thomas D. Sigerstad, a business professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland wrote another thoughtful piece that includes ways that students can save money in InsideHigherEd.com.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com.

Further Reading:

Renting Cheap College Textbooks

Amazon Wants Your Cheap College Textbooks

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7 Responses to Cutting the Cost of College Textbooks

  1. Jesse Walker October 21, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    Great information. I wanted to recommend http://www.textbookspy.com. Textbook Spy saved me a ton of money on my kid’s textbooks. It definitely helped me find the cheapest prices and best store for renting and buying their textbooks.

  2. Karen Lippe July 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    College textbooks costs are dropping with the help of technology. DynamicBooks are a new online interactive platform that will begin selling low cost textbooks in August 2010. The platform has gone through a beta test of 30 colleges and 3,000 students and the first books are ready for students to use. Aside from the lower cost, these textbooks are customized by the students instructor which will make the course and the book more relevant for the students. Students can view the book online as well as download it to their computer and they can print page by page and view it on their iPhone. There is an option to purchase the bound book as a traditional book. Check out Dynamicbooks.com in August and see how textbooks will be changing.
    Karen Lippe
    for DynamicBooks

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  4. Adan Vancleve June 9, 2010 at 8:20 am #

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  5. J. S. Allen January 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    To combat high textbook prices I always use http://www.bigwords.com They are a textbook search engine that searches all the online textbook retailers (including amazon, half, ebay etc) and rental sites (including chegg, bookrenter etc) to find you the best prices. You can even use them at the end of the semester to search for resellers to sell your books to.

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