How to Save Money on College Textbooks

The high prices of college textbooks are something that most college students, no matter what their major, have to deal with—and they can be a costly addition to your higher education budget. In fact, recent reports show that the average cost of college textbooks has increased 812% over the past 30 years, higher than the rise in tuition, and even medical services during the same period! These price increases mean that the average cost of textbooks per year, according to The College Board, can reach nearly $1,200 per student. However, that cost can be even more in fields that have higher-priced textbooks, such as engineering and the sciences.

For some students, textbook expenses are unmanageable, and can prevent them from taking certain courses — even courses that are beneficial for their academic success. Some students even try to succeed in a course without buying the required books, struggling to do the best they can from class notes. But it’s difficult to do well in such a situation, and students who do not have regular access to required textbooks often do poorly in their courses.

The reality is that most college professors assign textbooks because they contain information that is essential to the course curriculum, so it’s very important that students have access to those materials. Luckily, there are plenty of lower-cost options and alternatives to the traditional textbook purchase, and savvy students can reduce their textbook costs with a little bit of research and ingenuity. Check out these cost-saving options to lower your textbook costs:

  • Purchase used books: It’s not necessary to buy brand-new textbooks. Most college bookstores offer used copies at a substantial discount, but if you want to purchase used books, it’s best to buy your books early. If you wait until the last minute, you may find that there are no used copies left. You can also purchase used books from online retailers such as Amazon.com’s Half.com, Barnes and Noble, Chegg.com, eCampus.com, and other online sites, as well as students, who often advertise their used books on campus or online. However, before you purchase, remember that you may get a copy that has highlighting, underlining, notes, and other markings made by previous readers.
  • Rent books: One of the more recent options of the past few years is textbook rental, in which you lease a copy of the textbook from your college bookstore or an online retailer. As with used books, there may be markings in rental copies, and it’s also important to comparison shop. In addition, keep in mind that it may be cheaper to buy a used copy than rent a new one.
  • Use an eBook version of the assigned text: Digital versions of textbooks, which you can read on a website, e-reader, or your cell phone or other mobile device are often less expensive than print copies. They also have the added advantage of easier portability. Some are even available by the chapter, so you can purchase only those that are assigned. Ask your school’s bookstore or go to the publisher’s website to see if there is an eBook version available.
  • Choose courses that use free online eTextbooks: Free online textbooks are increasingly popular with professors who are conscious of textbook prices and want to lower their students’ educational expenses. Even students who do not have a computer or mobile device can access these textbooks by using a computer lab at their school. Some eTexts are also available as open resources, in which the author has not secured an exclusive copyright to allow anyone to copy the source. Check out the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources for a list of free online textbooks in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • Share Books: It’s possible to team up with a classmate or roommate to share a book, and therefore also share the cost, by creating a reading schedule that gives both of you adequate time to complete reading assignments. This can be risky, though, because it means someone else will have control over the resource and if they lose, damage, or hog the book, you won’t get much use out of it. If you do decide to try this, make sure you find a partner who is reliable and honest.
  • Use an older edition: Publishing companies and authors routinely edit and make changes to their textbooks, resulting in new editions every few years. Many students purchase these older versions of assigned textbooks at rock-bottom prices to save money, but this too can be risky. You may find that assignments are different, there is new material that you don’t have access to, or page numbers may be different, leaving you frantically tearing through the obsolete book, trying to catch up to your classmates. Before you do this, check with your professor to find out if an older version will be acceptable.
  • Read the copy of the textbook that is on reserve: Many college and university libraries hold copies of popularly assigned textbooks in their Reserve department. A reserve book is one that you can check out and read in the library itself for a limited period of time, usually two hours. Some professors also put a copy of the book on reserve at the library for student use. Check with your professor to find out if there is a reserve copy; if there isn’t, ask them to consider placing one there. Professors often get free copies of these books from publishers, so they may be able to honor this request.

These are the most popular and effective ways to reduce textbook costs, though there may be some others as publishing technology changes. A little bit of effort on your part can save you a lot of money in the long run.