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Keeping Textbook Costs Down

Tips for saving money on required readings

Boston University BU, Barnes and Nobles, buying books, ebooks, book rentals, how to save on college textbooks

Many students say that the best savings on textbooks are found online. Photos by Cydney Scott

A recent analysis by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) confirms what any college student already knows: the cost of textbooks and course materials has outpaced inflation. According to Student PIRGs, textbook prices have risen 22 percent during the past four years.

“High textbook prices should be illegal,” says Joe Kennedy (COM’14). “When multiplied by the fact that students need several books per class and take several courses at a time, it creates a huge financial obstacle for students to overcome before even setting foot in the classroom.”

Estimates for how much the average student spends on course materials vary wildly. A survey by the National Association of College Stores found that students spent an average of $662 annually for course materials last year, up slightly from $655 in 2011. Other estimates are nearly double that amount. The good news is that there’s been a sharp increase in the number of textbooks available for rent, as well as in digital textbooks, both offering substantial savings over a new textbook. Factor in the growing number of websites that offer cheaper prices and it is now possible for students to save in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

“Last year students took advantage of the digital, rental, and used books options in ever-increasing numbers,” says Steve Turco, general manager of Barnes & Noble at BU. Turco says that in the last academic year alone, BU students spent $2.2 million less at B&N than they did the previous year.

These savings can be largely attributed to the increase in the number of titles for rent at the bookstore. Renting has gained in popularity since B&N introduced the option four years ago. This year, 85 percent of B&N textbooks can be rented, resulting in savings of up to 60 percent, says Turco. He believes renting is the best and cheapest option for students because it guarantees savings.

“Selling back a book is different than any other personal sale you might have,” he says. “Let’s say you own a TV. That TV is going to be of greater value if it’s new, in good condition, and a name brand. The value of a book isn’t determined by the condition, how much it’s written in, or even how much you paid for it—it’s based specifically on if it is going to be used again.”

So at the end of the semester, if you try to sell back a textbook you bought new and your professor hasn’t notified B&N that the book will be used in the upcoming semester, you won’t get much back. If a new edition is used in the upcoming semester, you’ll get less back as well.

“Rental has become a guaranteed buyback,” Turco says.

Many students say that despite the wide range of rentals available at Barnes & Noble, the best savings are found online.

“I never buy from the school bookstore. I only buy from Half.com and Amazon,” says Katie Collins (CAS’14). “I usually order my books a month before classes. So far, even when I select “average condition,” all the used books I’ve bought have been in great shape. Sometimes major highlighting is annoying, but the condition of my books hasn’t been a problem.” Collins says she’s able to break even or close to even most of the time by buying used books online and selling them back online.

Alyssa Young (SAR’14) prefers another popular online site, Chegg, for her textbooks. The online retailer is best known for textbook rentals, but sells new books as well. “You type in the name of the book that you want to rent and you can keep it for a certain number of days,” Young says. “They send you a reminder when it’s due.” Like Collins, Young says she has never purchased or rented an unusable textbook from Chegg.

A quick comparison of two popular textbooks illustrates why sites like Chegg, Half.com, and Amazon have become increasingly popular with budget-conscious shoppers. A new copy of Principles of Modern Chemistry currently lists for $284.65 at Barnes & Noble. The same book was found recently at Chegg for $233.49, at Amazon for $175.25, and at Half.com for $139.20. Similarly, the Spanish textbook Gramatica Esencial lists for $157 new at Barnes & Noble, $135.99 at Chegg, $133.50 at Half.com, and $83.88 at Amazon. Those sites also offer many titles in digital format for purchase and rental as well.

For students who don’t have the time to comparison shop from one site to the next, there are a variety of online sources that will do it for you. Big Words will scan the various online sellers to find the cheapest price for a book and even take into account things like coupons and shipping costs to come up with your best option. Another useful site is Valore Books, which offers a low price guarantee on all textbook rentals. If you find an identical book for a cheaper price on another site within seven days of your purchase, the site will match the price.

Boston University BU, Barnes and Nobles, buying books, ebooks, book rentals, how to save on college textbooks

Laura Monti (SMG’15) (left) and Jen Bernier (SMG’15) check out Barnes & Noble at BU.

There are a few things you should consider when buying online. First, factor in the shipping costs. If you’re buying your textbooks from different retailers, individual shipping prices may undercut the savings you might have expected. Many sites do offer free shipping. For example, if you join Amazon Student, you can receive free shipping for six months. Be sure to read the small print before you purchase or rent anything online. Before buying an e-book, make sure the digital textbook you’re getting is compatible with your reader. When renting, make sure that the rental period extends through the entire semester (it doesn’t always). And if you’re renting a book, whether it’s from an online retailer or a bricks-and-mortar store, read the small print so you know what the terms and conditions are for marking a book. Each site has different stipulations for how much highlighting and writing in the margins is allowed. If you exceed those conditions, you may wind up having to pay for the book.

One other option for students who don’t want to hassle with the small print is to buy and sell directly from other students. “There are plenty of groups online that you can find,” says Young. “I think it depends on the popularity of the class—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll use Facebook, or talk to people who may be taking similar classes.” There are several Facebook groups created specifically to connect students buying and selling books, namely BU Students Selling BU Books for BU Courses, which has over 3,300 members.

Even though it is possible to find cheaper prices elsewhere, Sophie Miller (CAS’14) says she still prefers to buy the majority of her textbooks at B&N. “I believe it is worth it for the convenience and reliability of the BU bookstore,” says Miller. If a professor makes a last-minute change to your book list, B&N will automatically adjust your order, and if you decide to drop a class, you can return the books, as long as it’s before the withdrawal period and you haven’t marked them up.

The bottom line is, if you want to avoid spending a small fortune on textbooks, you need to be willing to put some time into finding the best deals. And remember, renting is the one way you’ll always be guaranteed savings.

Irene Berman Vaporis can be reached at imbv@bu.edu.


6 Comments on Keeping Textbook Costs Down

  • Just another BU parent on 09.03.2013 at 9:04 am

    I am disappointed with the assumption that make textbook rental a viable conclusion. Assuming that students want to ditch their texts at the end of the course is like assuming that students take a course solely to get a grade. Even if it is true for the most part, I’d like to avoid such cynical hypotheses and expect more. I feel that students should be expected to take this into account when selecting courses. After all, if you feel textbooks are expensive, why not look at the cost of tuition!

    As far as textbooks are concerned the real issue should not be the cost, but rather the value students get for what they pay. My feeling is that if students struggle with a text in their major and have no use for it once the course is done, then the professor made a poor choice for the text.

    There are many texts that have had a profound influence on me and I hung on to them. If the text was unnecessarily pricy and the editions got updated too fast (for trivial reasons), a rational and thrifty student might sell their text at the end of the course while the price is right, and then buy an earlier edition for next to nothing.

    • SMG Student on 09.03.2013 at 12:36 pm

      Very interesting point. In my experience at the end of the course I’d absorbed 80% or so of the information from the text. Instead of a big, bulky and expensive book I could buy one or two ebooks on amazon for cheap and expand my knowledge of the subject. Many textbooks are boring when you take out the lecturer.

  • Ben on 09.03.2013 at 12:01 pm

    Another great option is the library. I had several courses where I didn’t need to buy the books because they were on reserve at the library. This was hugely helpful, and I really appreciated the effort the profs put into making them available. As to “another BU parent”, I saved nearly all of my textbooks. It turns out that while getting my doctorate in psychology I don’t really need my chem 101 book, even though it was a great class. My metaphysics book stands proudly on my shelf – one of the hardest courses I ever took; I struggled mightily (and enjoyably) with it. But now I’m learning behavioral activation, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy. That my focus has shifted doesn’t denigrate those texts or the place they held at that time. But neither are they doing me much good.

  • Mike on 09.03.2013 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks for this advice. Yesterday, I bought all my books at the BU Barnes and Noble. Using the website, Big Words, I was able to find the books cheaper. Total Savings: $461.

  • FindersCheapers.com on 09.03.2013 at 8:21 pm

    One way to eliminate most of your textbook costs is to buy used textbooks after comparing prices on a website such as FindersCheapers.com to ensure you don’t overpay. When you are finished with a book, sell it back directly to students via a free seller account on Amazon Marketplace or eBay’s Half.com. Listing textbooks is fee, but you will pay a final value fee that is a percentage of the textbook sale price.

    The math works out like this, for Amazon Marketplace:

    Purchase a used textbook for -$40
    Re-sell on Amazon for $40 +31.66 after $8.34 in fees
    Actual cost to you: $8.34

    The downside is that you have to package each book up take it to the post office. You also have to make sure you understand how much it will cost to ship prior to listing your books. You can use the USPS media mail option to save money on shipping.

  • WHB on 09.04.2013 at 10:15 am

    eBooks are also becoming a great option (at least in humanities and social sciences classes). It still isn’t common to find your chemistry textbook (or math, or physics, etc.) in digital, but you can probably find quite a few!

    My senior year at BU as a history major didn’t require more than ten physical books even though my classes had me reading over fifty! Kindle, iBooks, and Nook can be your friend if you take the time to look. :-)

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