Saving Money on Textbooks: What You Should Know

By Lorena Roberts on July 22, 2018

Paying for college is a pretty hot topic across the country at the moment. Tuition is increasing (seemingly exponentially) every year, and college students are having a tough time financing their higher education. But part of the conversation that seems to be left out every now and again, is how much textbooks are costing our college students today.

Many popular news sources have covered the cost of textbooks at one point or another. Huffington Post reports that textbooks are up eight hundred twelve percent in the last thirty years. What used to be just another part of going to college is actually one of the parts that hinders our students the most. So much so, that students will try their very best to get through the semester without any textbooks at all.

With the average total cost of a semester’s textbooks leveling out at $655, college students are struggling to justify taking out more student loans (or using their grocery money) to pay for the literature that would aid in their education. But why are textbooks increasing astronomically – faster than we can keep up with? 


New editions are printed every so often – sometimes with only minor changes. But even the smallest change means re-printing the entire textbook, driving the price up. Oftentimes, college students will buy older versions of the required textbook because it can save them up to half of the cost — or more.

But what does this decision have on the impact of a student’s grades? CNBC conducted a survey of more than 2,000 students across 150 different college campuses in the US. 94% of these students stated that by not buying a required textbook for their class, they were worried about the impact it would have on their grade. During the same survey, 65% of the students stated they had skipped buying a textbook for class simply because it was too expensive.

As if the textbooks aren’t expensive enough, colleges are now requiring access codes as well, which are meant to give students “access” to their online homework assignments. Companies like WebAssign and MyMathLab (Pearson) are making all kinds of money off of college students and professors who use their services for academic reasons.

These access codes can be just as expensive (or more!) than the textbook itself. And unlike textbooks, these access codes cannot be reused.

It’s easy to blame this issue on the professors — the ones who are choosing which text to use for their class. And while students are extremely price-sensitive, professors may not be. But really, the driving force behind this issue is the textbook publishers themselves, opting to continue to re-print their work, driving the price of textbooks out the window.

Huffington Post suggests that it’s up to the students to demand open-source textbooks, where access will be given to all students, regardless of their income. Because when it comes to higher education, the argument of access is at its greatest. Who has access to earn a degree after high school? Largely, those who can afford it. But not just tuition and boarding.. textbooks as well.

If you’re a college student in today’s world, you are no stranger to high textbook prices. Every semester you must decide whether it’s worth it. And then you start seeking other ways to get access to a textbook for less. So what do you do? There are a number of ways students have opted to find textbooks for a cheaper price. If you’re looking into ways you could be saving money on textbooks, here are some options you might want to explore:

Infographic by Lorena Roberts

1. Rent your textbooks, instead of buying them.

When you begin college, your first two years are likely general education requirements. You’re taking classes that aren’t necessarily in your area of interest. Biology, psychology, English, and math are required courses for a college degree. It’s part of being a “well-rounded individual.” Though you are required to take these courses, you will probably have no use for the textbooks after the class is over. You’ll be stuck with four semesters of general education textbooks that you likely won’t use throughout the rest of your college career or once you’ve established your own working career.

Because of this, students will likely opt to rent their textbooks instead of buying them. Websites like Amazon will rent textbooks for a much more reasonable price. Chegg is another resource to check out if you’re interested in renting your textbooks as an alternative to a heavy price tag.

The only downside to renting your textbooks is that you’ll obviously not have a way to go back and use that textbook in the future. So for courses that are imperative to your education — for courses that are a major part of your major — you should weigh the cost versus how much you’ll likely use it in the future. Once you get into upper-level courses, it’s smart to have your own copies of the textbooks you used while in school.

2. Advertise the books you need on social media.

If you’re in a college town, heading back to school in the fall or spring, it is likely that you’re surrounded by other college students who are in the same boat as you. Upperclassmen who opted to buy their general education textbooks will be interested in getting rid of them and will seize any opportunity that presents itself to get rid of them.

If you use social media to reach out to upperclassmen (usually through Facebook groups), you’ll likely be able to purchase textbooks for a much, much cheaper price than what they’re listed for at the bookstore.

The beauty of textbooks is that there is always a demand for them. If you buy one of your textbooks for $40, you can probably turn around and sell it for the same amount a year later. Get creative with the way you advertise — reach out to people in your major who are a few years ahead of you. Ask your friends if they know anyone who’s taken the classes you’re in. There are hundreds of ways to get your books from people at a discounted price. And trust me, any college student would be happy to make $30 off a textbook.

3. Opt to buy textbooks from used bookstores.

The bookstores on campus will charge you an arm and a leg for the smallest thing. I would suggest never stepping foot into one if you’re concerned about your higher education finances. Used bookstores typically exist in college towns because of how much turnover there is for college textbooks. Buying and selling used textbooks isn’t the way to become a millionaire, but it’s a way for a business owner to support themselves in a college town – that’s for sure.

The problem with buying your textbooks from used bookstores near campus is that they’ll likely still try to charge you more than what they’re really worth. If you were to buy the same book off of an upperclassman, you could it get for way cheaper.

You’ll also probably have to settle for buying an older version than what’s required for your class, which I’m getting ready to elaborate on in #4.

4. Buy previous versions that are no longer being printed.

New versions of textbooks seem to come out every year. But the changes that have been made can be extremely minor — seemingly unworthy of an entire re-print. When courses require that you get the newest edition of a textbook, it’s likely that you can actually get by with an older (cheaper!) version. Some professors will actually tell you (the honest, cool ones) that the newest edition isn’t necessary. They’re required to say the newest one is what’s required for their course, but remember that if you even have the textbook at all, you’re doing better than half the class.

The one thing you need to worry about if you’re using an older version of a textbook, is that page numbers and chapters are often altered. It seems like such a silly thing to “fix,” and it truly is. Most of the content will remain the same, but publishers like to make money (obviously) and will continue to print “new editions” in order to keep the textbook orders rolling in.


5. Use an online subscription service.

There are plenty of companies out there that will allow you to access your textbooks through a subscription service. You’ll either pay per semester or per year and you’ll have access to all kinds of online textbooks/notes/resources. If you’re looking for a financially efficient way to get access to your textbooks in order to make the grades you want to make, you might want to look into a few of the online textbook subscription services.

Cengage Unlimited is launching this fall (2018) and will give students the opportunity to pay for a subscription to thousands of online educational resources. Access to textbooks online is becoming the future of higher education. It’s one of the most preferred ways students can save money on textbook expenses without having to sacrifice their academic standing.

Cengage Unlimited gives students the option to buy a subscription either by semester or by year. While the price may seem steep, at $119.99, the access you’ll have to educational resources will be worth it. Imagine getting access to all of your classes textbooks for one price. No more hassle at the on-campus bookstore!

6. Opt to not buy textbooks at all (and suffer through the academic impact).

Many students will decide they don’t need textbooks for their courses at all. Should you decide that this is the way you’ll save money on your higher education, so be it. I’ve known many students who have gotten through the semester successfully without a textbook. Depending on the course, the professor, and how the syllabus is set up, it might be entirely possible for you to get through a semester without the text. However, if you’re taking a course with heavy reading requirements, little lecture material, and essay tests, I would suggest getting a copy of the textbook. You’ll be a better student because of it. Look at buying textbooks as an investment in your education. And if you’ve taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans already, what’s another few hundred dollars per semester on textbooks?

As college tuition continues to rise and today’s college students continue to struggle with financing their education, the cost of textbooks continues to hinder our students. Having an educated society should be a priority in this country, but it will be impossible to keep sending students to earn advanced degrees if we don’t figure out a way around it being such a financial burden.

NPR’s Planet Money even did a special on why textbook prices continue to rise. In addition to talking to students, NPR takes a plunge into speaking with professors and the textbook company as well. These professors are choosing textbooks that can single-handedly cost over $300. How can students possibly be expected to fork over this amount of money?

So when it comes to buying textbooks for your classes, remember that you have options besides just the bookstore on campus. And when you see your classmates looking for textbooks they need, remember that you were once in their shoes. Ripping off a freshman might be nice in the moment (and you might have some beer money) but you’re actually making their life just a little bit harder.

If you get the itch to stand up to your college/university, think about demanding open-sourced textbooks. Think about talking to professors with whom you’ve created a personal relationship and explore the possibility of using open sources. The more students who can be successful based on a community effort to make college more accessible, the more educated our society will become.

Whether you end up buying your textbooks off of upperclassmen, renting them, or going without them altogether, best of luck in earning a higher education!

In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her pup at the dog park and binge watching Netflix with endless cups of Hot Cocoa.

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