According to the College Board, students at four-year public schools spent an average of $1,137 on textbooks during the 2010-2011 academic year. As any statistics student will tell you, it's important to approach this number with a grain of salt. In reality, the cost of books will vary by degree-type, major, number of classes and types of classes. For instance, an English major may need to buy more books than a Chemistry major, but the Chem major's books might be more expensive. For some students, expensive books might actually be a deterrent from taking certain classes. Realistically, a student can expect textbook costs in the $1,000 to $3,000 per-year range.
TUTORIAL: Education Savings Accounts
So what should a cash-strapped student do?
Students should make an active effort to find cost-reducing textbook alternatives. Ultimately, the price of a textbook and course will pay off in the form of a full-time salary, but you need to figure out how to get the best return possible for your investment in the meantime. Keep your upfront textbook costs low with these suggestions:
1. Rent Books Instead of Buying Them
If your course is forcing you to buy a new edition or if you need a quick alternative to your campus bookstore, consider renting your book instead of buying it. You can use a service like Chegg or a location-specific program near your campus. If you use a service like Chegg, keep in mind that online coupon codes are available to help you trim down your expense. (For some ideas on how to save on the cost of textbooks, check out Students, Get More Bang For Your Textbook Dollars.)
2. Buy Second-Hand Instead of New
Even if your professor requires a new edition, ask if you can use an old one. Make sure that you compare the two editions though, so you can find a way to compensate for the difference. If you know that you're going to be taking a course in the near future, start identifying former students to see if you can buy their old books. Offer to match the lowest price on Amazon.com or Half.com. The return for the seller will be better because second-hand marketplaces charge a considerable commission. If you can't find the textbook in person, keep an eye open on Amazon.com or Half.com. Try to buy your books ahead of time, as soon as you register for classes because prices tend to increase at the beginning of the quarter or semester when students are actively shopping for books. Be careful though - you don't want to buy books for a class that you're not sure about. If you do, make sure to check the return policy first.
3. Borrow Them from the Library
Look through your syllabus to determine how often your professor plans to use the books that he or she assigns. If there are only one or two assignments that require that book, the most cost and time-effective option will be to borrow it from the campus library. If the book isn't available at your library, check to make sure whether there is an inter-library loan so that you can borrow the book from another location. Keep renewing books as many times as you can and for as long as you need them. More often than not, professors will also place books on course reserve at the library. This means that students can borrow the books within the library - without checking them out - for a certain period of time. This practice helps keeps books more accessible to students.
4. Share Books with a Group of Students
Find a group of two or (at most) three students with whom to split costs. Make sure that you all live near each other and come up with a schedule for sharing books. Then, split the cost of the books. This group can also function as a study group. With compromise, accountability and clear scheduling, you'll be able to effectively share your study materials.
5. Get eBooks
Through services like Chegg, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you can rent or buy electronic textbooks. Even if you do not have an e-reader or tablet, you can still access, markup and read the books on your computer. In other words, you don't need to buy a Kindle or Nook - you just need to download some light software to your Mac or PC. For books that are licensed in the public domain, you can also find copies via Google search. Make sure to research a book to see if you can access it for free before you buy it. Sometimes, public-domain books are available via PDF. You might even find the book on Google Books. If you're not sure whether a book is in the public domain, Google it anyway. (For related reading, see Do e-Textbooks Help Students Save Money?)
TUTORIAL: Student Loans
The Bottom Line
Textbook costs are extremely high, but it is possible to trim them down below the bookstore MSRP. No matter what, remember that there is no clear-cut method for keeping costs down. You'll need to research your books on an individual-basis to figure out the best strategy for saving. For some books, renting might be your least expensive option; for others, you might be better off buying used. Make the decision that's best for you and your budget.