The Killer Cost of Textbooks, and Ways to Survive
There are many costs of college apart from tuition, and the high cost of college textbooks is perhaps the most notorious. Just speak to a student or their parents around the beginning of a semester and you're bound to hear some complaints and eye-popping numbers for how much books ran them. People complain that the cost of education is so high already, colleges shouldn't bury the students under a larger financial burden by having to pay hundreds of dollars every semester for books.
Unfortunately, colleges have no control over the pricing of textbooks, and the prices won't be going down any time soon. Textbooks are so expensive because the information within must be the most current and advanced available, and to be on the academic cutting edge requires exhaustive scholarship on the part of textbook authors. Such scholarship, especially in scientific fields, requires large amounts of time and money, and that's why your Chem 1 textbook/workbook package costs $150 from the bookstore. With prices for textbooks as high as they are, especially from your campus bookstore, it's important to know your alternatives.
Alternatives to the campus bookstore
Buying your textbooks from the campus bookstore is more often than not an unnecessarily expensive option. Most bookstores will sell used textbooks, but the prices are much higher than what you can find on an site such as Amazon. Some schools are moving towards digital libraries, which would all but eliminate the need for paper textbooks, but it'll be some time before digital books are universally adopted across academia.
The most cost-efficient method for getting your textbooks is through a rental service. There are several sites that offer textbook rentals, but all provide similar service. For any of them, you simply go to the website, type in the title/author of your textbook or the ISBN, and you'll see the book and a rental rate. The prices are strikingly low: an Intro to Economics textbook that was listed at the bookstore for $150 cost me only $50 for the semester through Chegg.com. The one downside of rental services is that you can't keep the books, but if you don't mind that, it's a great money saving option.
CampusBooks.com is another indispensable resource for college students. The site searches through online retailers for the books you need, and then displays options for either buying or renting them. It's like a search engine for textbooks with a 'buy now' button. Amazon.com and Half.com are also great resources, not only for buying books but for selling. Compare the listings on both sites -- sometimes you can find books listed for less on one than the other.
Whenever you shop for textbooks, be sure to check the return policy. This is the one area in which campus bookstores probably surpass online retailers: they generally have longer return periods, and it's more convenient to walk to the campus bookstore than FedEx. You don't want your course selections to be limited by return policies, either - I've had friends stuck in courses they can't stand, but they remain enrolled because they bought their books online and can't return them. Whatever option you choose, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages.
When do I need my books by?
This question flies off every incoming freshman's lips dozens of times before the first day of classes. It's understandable that no freshman wants to show up unprepared to class on the very first day only to see that everyone else has their textbooks - but you don't need them right away. In the beginning of the semester, students constantly add and drop classes, and professors are generally forgiving if you don't have the textbooks for the first week or two. They understand the hassle and cost involved in the process, so most will give you some leeway. That doesn't mean you should wait to order, though - do that as soon as you know what books you'll be using.
My campus bookstore says they'll pay me the most if I sell my books back to them. Should I?
Every bookstore says this, and it's laughable. Selling back to the bookstore is good for them because it keeps their supply of used books up. That can be somewhat convenient for you too, or would be if you received any more than 25% of what the book is worth when you sold it back. Short answer: you can sell back, if you don't mind taking a hit. If you put in a little time and effort, you can come close to making your money back.
I've had great experiences selling college textbooks on Amazon and Half.com. Both the demand for textbooks and the traffic on these sites are so high that you can name your price, within reason, and sell pretty quickly around the start of a semester. If you're planning on selling your textbooks online, be sure to keep them in the best condition possible. If you get pizza grease or spill beer on a textbook, it'll kill the book's value. Keep your books as nice and as new as possible to maximize their resale price.
When you go to purchase your textbooks, don't get lazy. If you put in a little time and effort searching around the internet, odds are you'll save a lot of money. As always, for any financial aid information and advice, be sure to check back at the blog and at SimpleTuition.com. Cheers!