By mmagnarelli
August 20, 2014
Image Source—Alamy

Ask Sandra Kerley how important it is that she’s able to get textbooks for free, and she’ll you that this seemingly minor benefit is “life changing.”

“It helps us pay the electricity bill; it helps us put food on the table for the kids; it helps us buy other supplies for class,” says the 35-year-old Kerley, a third-year business administration student at Tidewater Community College in Virginia. Her school’s “Z Degree” program relies solely on free, open-source textbooks to eliminate a substantial part of what’s driving up the cost of college: the often prohibitive expense of class materials.

The price of new printed textbooks continues to rise—up more than 7% last year alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 82% between 2002 and 2012, as calculated by the Government Accountability Office.

Even as these costs soar, however, the average student is actually spending a bit less now than in the past. Between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, the U.S. Department of Education reports, the average amount students spent on books and supplies declined by 2% at public, four-year universities and colleges and a little less than 1% at private non-profit institutions. The average outlay is now around $1,200 for students at both types of schools.

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Here are three reasons why students’ outlays have come down—and how you can make sure yours do, too:

1. A burgeoning rental market. More and more students are renting their course materials instead of buying them, which can save hundreds of dollars over the course of an education. In 2009, roughly 300 colleges and universities had rental programs. Today, more than 3,000 do, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

That has pushed down prices throughout the rest of the market, says Richard Hershman, v.p. for government relations at the National Association of College Stores: “Textbook rental programs … [have] created a lot of residual competition and forced publishers to sell digital products at better prices.”

Your move: Investigate renting. A new copy of the 10th edition of Campbell Biology lists for $230, but a paper copy can be rented from for $67 (with a December 19 return) or $110 for an e-book (with a 180-day subscription). This option doesn’t make sense for a book you’ll need to refer back to later. Nor does it make sense if you’re tough on books or are likely to miss the due date—you could end up having to pay the list price minus any rental fees. In those cases, buying an ebook rather than renting it ($160 from Amazon for Kindle) or getting the book used ($179 on Amazon) may be a better option.

2. More advance warning. The 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act required publishers to disclose their prices to faculty or whoever is in charge of selecting course materials. Universities and colleges, in turn, have to list that information on their online course schedules so that students can start shopping around early.

Your move: Start comparison shopping as soon as the list is released, since you won’t have time to be as price sensitive if you begin the day before class starts. Check out all the different ways you can get your hands on the book. The electronic edition could be cheaper than the rental or vice versa. Buying it online could cost less than shopping at the campus bookstore, or vice versa. Keep in mind that stores sell out of used stock quickly, so you’ve got to get there early to get the pre-owned copy.

3. The open-source revolution. Groups like PIRG are advocating for more open-source textbooks, which would be free to students online and relatively cheap to download.


Tidewater isn’t the only school that has started to integrate these materials into their courses. The University System of Maryland ran a pilot program last spring at the behest of its student council. Eleven faculty members from seven institutions across Maryland participated. Roughly 1,100 students saved a total of around $130,000 in just one semester.

“Faculty are open to this, and they are eager to do what they can to cut costs for students, but they have to balance that against quality of the materials,” says M.J. Bishop, director of the Center for Academic Innovation. “That will be the biggest hurdle going forward.”

Your move: Lobbying faculty to move toward open-source texts is noble, but probably won’t realize savings this semester. Because there are those who believe all information should be free, you can find pirated copies of many texts online for free, but keep in mind that this is illegal. You can stay on the good side of the law by looking up books that have exceeded their copyright dates and are now in the public domain—most useful for literature courses—at sites like Project Gutenberg or Google Books.

4. Students opting out. The other reason for the decline in what students pay for textbooks is more troubling, says Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of research libraries based in Washington, D.C. “There is a really alarming trend of a lot of students not buying their textbooks because the price is too high,” she says. “Overall student spending on textbooks may be down, but the question is how much of that is because students haven’t bought the books they were supposed to because they can’t afford them.”

That trend was confirmed by a report released last year by PIRG, which surveyed more than 2,000 students at 150 universities and found that roughly 65% had decided against buying a textbook at some point because it was too expensive.

Your move: Really can’t afford the book? Find a friend to share with: Either someone who took the same class last semester who still has their book or someone who’s in the class with you this term. You could also ask the professor if he or she has put a copy on reserve in the campus library, and if not, whether a previous edition of the book will suffice. You can save as much as 70% by purchasing even just one version prior. Campbell Biology 9th edition used, for example, will cost you only $69 used and $30 to rent on

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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