Buying college textbooks can be a dizzying experience.
First, there’s the sticker shock. Textbooks are expensive, and the bill for a semester’s worth of books can easily rival that of a decent laptop.
Then there’s a plethora of options for acquiring books. Modern textbooks come with a lot of bells and whistles, usually in the form of digital resources, and they’re increasingly available as e-books or through rental or subscription services.
A bargain hunt can quickly become overwhelming, and perplexed students may end up shelling out more of their, or their parents’, hard-earned dollars than necessary.
Getting a good deal on textbooks is a two-step process. Students must figure out what they want, and then they can explore where to get it.
Like most aspects of college, success favors those who are prepared and do their homework.
To start out, students need to find the list of assigned materials for their courses. These usually are textbooks, but they can include worksheet packets, lab equipment and other items, too.
Students should consider what sort of book would meet their needs. Options include:
- A new book. This is the safest and most convenient option, which is why it’s generally the most expensive option.
- A used book. Sure, it might have a few dings or some highlighting, but a used textbook often represents a significant savings. Check to make sure you don’t need any of the digital supplements that come with new books, though.
- An older edition. Last year’s version of a popular textbook is likely pretty similar to the brand-new option. Compare the table of contents to be sure not much has changed, and be careful if homework comes directly from the book.
- A different edition. The text for “The Great Gatsby” shouldn’t differ from that $20 assigned edition or a 99-cent copy from Goodwill. Be mindful if supplemental materials, such as an introduction, are part of the assigned reading, or if the text is a translation.
- Skipping the book. Some textbooks never get opened, and optional textbooks can often be skipped. This is a risky move, though, and should be done infrequently if at all. You might end up buying the full-price text or having your grade suffer as a result.
Students need to remember textbooks are a necessary part of the collegiate experience. Tim Borchers, vice president for academic affairs at Peru State College, said students need to do their assigned readings if they want to be successful.
“Just listening to faculty lectures isn’t going to be sufficient,” Borchers said.
Once students determine what they need, there are several options for how to get their hands on their books:
Buying from a traditional college bookstore
The campus bookstore is usually the first place that students look, often because that’s where they will find listings of their assigned textbooks.
If you want to save some money, shop early. You’re more likely to find that used book, and the price just might be lower.
“A lot of the pricing is dynamic, so it’s like buying an airline ticket,” Borchers said. “They can keep checking until they find books at competitive prices.”
Bookstores are aware of their competition, and it might be worth a few bucks for the peace of mind of seeing the book before buying it. Traditional bookstores sell other supplies, too, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bookstore will even price match with online retailers.
Another consideration is that financial aid and scholarship money often can be used at the official campus bookstore but not other retailers. In some states, including Iowa, campus bookstores also enjoy special sales tax exemptions.
Buying online or through a third party
Textbook publishers are increasingly offering digital options, and online sales of printed books have vastly expanded the options for students.
When buying online, make sure to pay attention to edition numbers and delivery details. Take a look at the return policy, too.
Not all online options are half a world away, either. Metropolitan Community College offers a Textbook Exchange for its students to buy textbooks from verified student sellers. Social media also offers buy-sell-trade groups where local college textbooks are often readily available.
Renting from a bookstore or an online service
Students who don’t want to keep a book often can rent it from a variety of online services or increasingly from the campus bookstore. Renting is often the most affordable option.
A study by Campusbooks.com this year found that textbook prices are starting to go down after years of increases because rentals now make up one-third of the textbook market.
“Textbook rentals have nearly doubled in the last three years due to widespread awareness and acceptance,” Campus Books CEO Alex Neal said.
Depending on your situation, borrowing might also be an option. Check university and public libraries or find a fellow student who decided to keep their copy.
Subscribing to a course material service
The subscription model has come to the textbook industry.
Follett, the company that operates the bookstore at UNL, MCC and several other Nebraska institutions, is piloting a service called Follett ACCESS that offers students all their course materials, including lab kits and supplies, on the first day of classes as part of their tuition.
“That is a new innovative approach,” said Follett spokesperson Tom Kline.
Peru State’s business faculty are exploring a similar product, Cengage Unlimited.
“The student, for $120, can get access to maybe three of four different courses’ worth of materials,” Borchers said. “That’s becoming a very affordable and attractive option.”
While textbook publishers strive to stay relevant, some programs are choosing to ditch textbooks in favor of alternative course materials.
Art Brown, dean of information technology at MCC, said several IT classes use open educational resources. Brown said he expects more instructors will adopt those free materials in the future.
“We are a little ahead of the curve,” Brown said.