Spending a little time online can add up to big savings.
By Anne Vaccaro Brady
Now that you’ve moved on from the sticker shock of the college tuition bill, prepare for the jaw dropping cost of your freshman’s textbooks. Buying books for college was never cheap, but now a semester of textbooks can average $650, according to the College Board. Time to find alternatives to the campus bookstore.
The basics on college textbooks Unlike high school, where the same textbooks are sometimes used by two generations, colleges tend to require newer editions almost yearly, preventing a student from simply pulling a used copy off the bookstore shelf.
(Your teen can find his list of required textbooks by accessing his course schedule via the online student portal. Wait to buy recommended books until classes start to find out if they are really necessary.)
Your student has four main options to acquire a college textbook today—buy it new, buy it used, rent it or purchase the e-textbook.
My recommendation, and that of recent grads, is to buy the book new if you need it for more than a semester, like an anatomy and physiology book for a nursing or rehab sciences major, then find the cheapest option for the books that’ll never be touched once the class ends.
Buying a book used means that its condition will range from looking brand new to a highlighted mess. The price will likely correspond with the condition.
When renting a book, you pay to use the book for a designated length of time—a quarter, semester, or just a few weeks—then return it. These books are used, but come with restrictions on the amount of highlighting and note-taking you can do. Students receive return date email reminders, which should prevent late fees.
Like e-books, e-textbooks can be read on tablets, e-readers, computers and smartphones and are cheaper than hardcopies. At the end of the semester, you lose access to the book.
Shopping via a physical store The campus bookstore generally sells new books and some used, and might offer the option to rent. Independent stores near the college cater to used copies.
Colleges often promote the convenience of ordering from their bookstore in advance and picking up the box of books when your student arrives on campus. This choice alleviates both parental and student anxiety, but is costly.
Online retailers almost always allow a student to sell back purchased textbooks, but campus bookstores will refuse if the class requires a new edition or a different book the next semester.
Going online for textbooks The growing number of online sites are either retailers, which rent and sell textbooks, or marketplaces, which search for the best prices from various retailers. All these sites claim that they can save you “up to” 90 percent on textbooks, but your savings, while still substantial, is likely to be less than that.
The retail sites Chegg and textbooks.com sell and rent new and used books, and e-textbooks. Bookbyte sells and rents only used books. Better World Books sells new and used books in print form exclusively.
Once on a site, type in the ISBN number in the search bar to learn your price. Some retailers require you to select whether you want to rent, buy or sell first. Depending upon the retailer and how much you’re spending, shipping can be free. Check the homepage for daily discount codes, too. For rentals, the debit or credit card used for the transaction remains on file until the book is returned. Remind your student to save the box the books arrive in for easier returns (a return shipping label is usually included or can be printed later).
Find e-textbooks on digital-only retailers like RedShelf.
The marketplace sites bigwords.com, Direct Textbook, SlugBooks and CheapestTextbooks.com serve as a clearinghouse. You provide the ISBN number for a textbook and they find the best prices at a variety of retailers, then link you directly to the retail site you choose to complete your purchase.
Used book buyer and renter beware Many new textbooks come with single-use access codes or keys that enable students to obtain supplemental materials and take online quizzes. These are not included with used or rented books, but some retail sites, including Chegg and textbooks.com, sell them a la carte, and marketplace sites SlugBooks and Direct Textbook will find sellers. These codes and keys can also be bought directly from the textbook publisher. Be wary of buying from private sellers.
Return dates for rented textbooks can be extended, if necessary. The debit or credit card registered to the account will be charged for late or never returned books.
Other options Spend no money by using the college library. Search the online catalog to learn if any required textbooks are in their stacks and talk to a librarian to find out if any your professors put textbooks on reserve. Don’t forget to ask about the inter-library loan program, which you heard about during the campus tour.
Consider sharing or bartering. Buy a book with a friend in the same class or swap textbooks with someone taking a couple of the same courses but in a different semester.
Visit Project Gutenberg to find free e-books, generally those whose copyright has expired, such as classic novels.
The upside Campus bookstores no longer hold a monopoly on textbook sales. Take advantage of the various resources available. This is a time when I support a parent being heavily involved in a college-related matter because the cost savings can be significant.
If you miss the opportunity to shop around the first semester, don’t get too upset. At least you’re prepared for the next one.
Parents, recent grads and current students, please share your advice and best sources for college textbooks in the comments section below.