Seeking ways to beat soaring textbook costs

College students and their parents are burdened by the ever-rising cost of tuition and housing. A tr

College students and their parents are burdened by the ever-rising cost of tuition and housing. A trip to the bookstore doesn’t make it any easier.

“Going to the bookstore website for the first time was a pretty big culture shock for me,” said Adam Hebert of Clifton Park, remembering his freshman year at Quinnipiac University in southern Connecticut.

Erin Benson of Ballston Lake had a similar experience when she was a student at SUNY Plattsburgh. “One semester I paid nearly $600 for textbooks,” she said. “It was pretty overwhelming for me.”

According to the College Board, students at four-year public colleges spend an average of $1,168 per year for textbooks.

Prices have skyrocketed, increasing by 186 percent from 1986 to 2004, according to the Government Accounting Office. The GAO says the two main reasons are the shortened revision cycle of textbooks and the practice of “bundling,” in which a textbook is sold along with supplemental materials such as CDs, access codes for web-based materials, manuals and the like.

When Carole Renzi, owner of Mary Jane Books in Albany and Cobleskill, started in the used textbook industry, new editions came out about every six years. That dropped to four years, then two years. Now a new edition can come out in 16 months, she said. The new editions may or may not differ significantly from the older ones, making it difficult for students to know if they can use an older edition.

Affordability law

To address the issue, the U.S. government passed the Federal Textbook Affordability Act of 2007, which went into effect on July 1, 2010. It requires publishers to disclose textbook prices to professors so they can consider the cost when choosing books for their courses. It also requires colleges to provide textbook price information to students before and during registration so they can factor in those costs, and it dictates that publishers offer unbundled course materials (unless they are bundled by third-party contract or meant to be used only as integrated materials).

New York state passed the Textbook Access Act, which went into effect on July 1, 2009, and mirrors the federal statute.

Yet, students still struggle with high prices.

Buying used books — if a student can figure out if a used edition will work — is a popular option. The Internet has caused an explosion in the availability of used books, because individuals can sell their copies easily at their own prices.

“Now there are multiple online vendors out there, so there are a lot of different resources for students,” Renzi said. “We’ve always tried to basically hit up as many wholesale resources as possible so that we’re constantly scouring as many used resources as we can, which is a pretty daunting task, and it takes a lot of time.”

By the time Hebert was a student at Union Graduate College, he was buying all his books used from Amazon.

Publisher work-around

But publishers have been pushing back against the used book market by bundling materials and creating “custom versions” of textbooks for colleges, making it harder for students to use used editions. The ISBN numbers for these custom and bundled versions rarely show up in online searches at used book sources.

While buying used has become easier because of the expanding used book market, finding what materials will work for a particular course is more difficult. “For students to figure out what they really need is kind of like a puzzle,” Renzi said.

For example, a foreign language textbook may be sold as a bundle with a key code for online exercises and resources. Students may think that they have no option but to purchase the package, when they may actually be able to buy a used copy of the book and purchase the code separately. The same could be true for books that come bundled with CDs. It takes some investigation to determine if this is a possibility.

Renting an option

Another option is renting textbooks, and more rental companies come on the scene every year. Santa Clara University student Colin Barceloux is a case in point. Fed up with the high prices of college textbooks, he founded BookRenter in 2006.

“Our value proposition to student is that we’re able to save them 80 to 85 percent off the retail price when they rent our books,” said Sara Leoni, vice president of e-commerce at BookRenter. “Because it is such a strong value proposition, we’ve seen it grow like wildfire,” she said. The company boasts that it has saved students almost $200 million on college textbooks. It also buys back textbooks from students.

Some local campuses, including the College of Saint Rose and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, run their own rental programs. There are also several sites online that offer textbook rentals.

Colleges have also looked for ways to help their students save on books. Mike McDermott, director of the Union Bookstore at RPI, said a number of the school’s academic departments have worked with publishers to modify the required textbook to reduce the cost — for example, changing the format from hardcover to softcover or having a less-expensive electronic format available. In addition, the school offers discounted prices, and fills books for its “pre-pack” program with used books first if requested.

Follett Higher Education Group operates The College of Saint Rose Campus Store. Through its network of stores, students have access to the largest inventory of used textbooks in the marketplace, saving 25 percent on the price of a book, said Haleigh Morgan of Follett. In addition, the store has a year-round buyback program based on the demand for the book, paying students 50 percent back.

Students at Hudson Valley Community College can purchase used books at 75 percent off the price of new book, and the college buys them back for up to 50 percent of the retail price of the book, regardless of whether the student purchased the book new or used.

Digital versions could be the answer in future years as students get more used to using digital materials. Saint Rose students have the option to use Follett’s “CafeScribe,” a digital textbook program at a 40 to 60 percent savings over print.

“While the majority of students are still purchasing or renting print textbooks, digital course materials are quickly growing in popularity with more than two-thirds of students preferring the option to print after using a digital textbook,” Morgan said.

Digital study guide

Using digital versions, tech-savvy students can compile all their notes and highlighting into a study guide, as well as use social media features to share notes and ideas with classmates and professors.

Students have also come up with their own ways to save through networking and collaborating with each other. Benson knew students who didn’t buy books, but used those on reserve at the library. Others bought books from friends who had already taken the course.

“Some wouldn’t buy books and would make really good friends with people they had classes with and go over to their room to study or borrow it,” Hebert said.

Mark Kantrowitz, an author on financial aid and college planning, publishes the website FinAid (, where he includes a list of online bookstores, price comparison websites, and a list of sources of free textbooks.

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