The Expense of Textbooks is Driving Up Student Debt

by incomefromdorm

Why are textbooks so expensive? What would happen if students became empowered and made it so textbook publishers had to lower the cost of books?

Any college student has been there before...Classes start in a few days and you finally received the list of textbooks required for this semester. You take your list to your school bookstore and find that the used books available are still very expensive. Some books don't even have used book alternatives available because they are new editions. Others have shrink wrapped workbooks, CDs, and online course extras. Almost all of your books will cost over $100 each.

When you buy a textbook, you are paying for the royalties for each of the book contributors. You are paying for the CD and workbook bundle, the online tutorials, and the images.

Students decide the cost of textbooks every time they buy a new book off the shelf. If students buy used books, the publishers do not make any money. What if students focused on running campaigns at their colleges to bring awareness of how we can control prices? If hundreds of thousands of students refused to buy books new, the impact would make a difference.

It's not only the cost of the textbooks that is a problem. Millions of books are produced every year and most of them are printed on virgin tree paper. For each book you buy used, less paper and energy are consumed. There is also less environmental impact from the printing process.

Read more about the Printing Process of College Textbooks

What Else Can Students Do to Reduce Textbook Prices?

  • Share textbooks with other students or initiate textbook exchange programs
  • Provide feedback to professors about textbook quality, availability, and prices
  • Try to order your books through alternative sources to reduce your cost. I recommend Abebooks, Ebay,, and You need to allow enough time to have your books shipped so if your professor has not announced the required book list yet, make an effort to figure out what you will need
  • Depending on how you are paying for your books, you will need enough money to avoid being locked into a financial aid credit with the bookstore. In most cases, financial aid will not be dispersed early enough to put towards the cost of ordering books online. Try to put aside money before the semester starts so that you can buy through alternative companies.
  • Consider buying international editions of textbooks. These are usually easy to find for math and science textbooks. You will not be able to resell them in most cases, but they are usually much cheaper to buy. You can normally find out what is different between the US and International editions directly from the publisher's website.

Once the semester has ended, try to resell your books back at the right time. If you try to resell your books back to the bookstore, they only have certain times that they will buy back. Look into selling your books back online, too. I use a site called Cash4Books and get paid through PayPal once they receive my books. Some sites are more accepting of books with highlighting than others, so if you plan to resell your books, try to use sticky notes instead of writing in your books. You'll get more money back on your books in the long run.

What Can Professors Do to Help?

  • Determine if a new edition is really necessary. If minor things were changed, update students with information from the publisher about the changes but allow students to still purchase previous editions. If you find out that the bookstore can only order the new edition in enough quantity for student needs, let the students know if previous editions are suitable, too.
  • Don't lock students into buying bundled books. The bookstore normally won't buy them back. Sure the 35 page workbook may be helpful for the student, but should it cost them an extra 50 bucks? If that's the only way that a book can be ordered from the publisher, let the book store now that students can sell the book back without the bundle contents for the following academic semester.
  • If you only need a few sections from a book, is this something that can be summarized through a few PowerPoints instead? Maybe you could do something different and record a video lecture. Could you work with other professors and even other colleges to write your own material and make it available online?
  • Look into alternative versions of the text such as print quality, black and white images, and paperback.
  • Be aware of what the prices actually are with the bookstore. Prices can vary by semester if the bookstore is required to increase it based on their cost with the publisher.
  • Let your students and the bookstore know about your required textbooks as early as possible. The bookstore can work out cost and shipping arrangements earlier if they know what you need. If a student plans to buy books online, they may need up to a month in case something doesn't work out with receiving their books. This is also very helpful if students want to share textbooks.
  • Do you know how your students felt about a particular book? Ask them.
  • Make copies of the textbooks available on reserve in the library.
Updated: 10/30/2011, incomefromdorm
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sheilamarie on 09/28/2011

Although I went to university a long time ago, I can remember that affording the textbooks was a problem for me. I arranged to share a book with another student for one of my classes, but did rather poorly in the class as a result. What we needed to learn was more in the textbook than in the lectures, and the textbook was not always available for me to study.
At least now with the internet, there are more options. Good luck with this campaign. I think the cost of textbooks is outrageous!

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