Buying textbooks has become the third biggest expense for college students, after tuition and room and board. The College Board estimates that the average student at a private university spends $1,253 annually on books and supplies. And a recent analysis by the nonprofit US Public Interest Research Group offers some startling statistics: textbook prices have increased 82 percent in the past decade—rising at almost three times the rate of inflation. In the same study, 65 percent of the students surveyed said they had decided against buying a required book because of the cost.
But there are ways budget-conscious shoppers can save. Over the past few years, there’s been a sharp increase in the number of textbooks available for rent and in the selection of books available in a digital format, both of which can offer substantial savings over the cost of a new textbook. Factor in the growing number of websites that offer discounted prices, and it’s possible to keep costs down.
“Today there is a multitude of format options available for students to choose. You can buy new or buy used, rent new or rent used, buy digital or rent digital,” says Steve Turco, the general manager of Barnes & Noble at BU. “Students should make the best purchasing decision to meet their needs. Go to our website to see what price and format availability is out there,” Turco advises.
For example, students needing to purchase Introduction to Hospitality, a textbook used in some School of Hospitality courses, will find six different pricing options at Barnes & Noble at BU: purchase new for $139 or used for $104; rent new for $90 or used for $62.65; buy a digital version for $83 or rent it for $55.99. But there’s no hard and fast rule for what the most economical option is—it varies from textbook to textbook. Sometimes buying a hard copy of the book is the best way to go. So you need to do some homework before plunking down your payment.
“Last year students saved over one million dollars through our rental and digital options,” Turco says, noting that renting is usually the best option for students looking to save.
“We expanded the number of titles rentable last year, and we also changed our pricing policy so that you could rent books for up to 80 percent off the publisher’s price.” He says that the volume of rentals rose 39 percent over the previous year. “In fact, we rented more books than almost any other Barnes & Noble last year,” Turco says. This year, more than 70 percent of B&N textbooks are available for rent, resulting in savings of up to 80 percent.
“I usually rent my textbooks,” Emma Gay (SAR’15) says. “I don’t have any need for a soon-to-be-outdated nutrition book that will cost me $200, as opposed to paying $50 and being able to give it back.”
While renting has gained in popularity, not everyone is a fan. “I feel like renting is a total waste of money,” says Maddie Work (CAS’15), who prefers buying books and trying to sell them back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Kelly Huynh (CAS’15, GRS’15) agrees. “For the amount of money that you spend on renting, you can probably find a used version of it, and then you can sell it back,” says Huynh. “You can’t sell back a rented textbook.”
But buyer beware: there is no guarantee that you will be able to sell your book back for much money at the end of the semester. “Selling back a book is different than any other personal sale you might have,” Turco 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 whether it is going to be used again in a course.” If, at the end of the semester, 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 coming semester, you won’t get much for it. Ditto if the professor chooses to use a new edition of the book you’re trying to sell. That’s why Turco believes renting is the best option for students—it guarantees savings.
Many students say that despite the wide range of rentals available at Barnes & Noble, the best savings are found by comparison shopping online.
“I prefer to search Amazon for books because they are a lot cheaper,” says Gay. Other students, like Chloë Walker (CAS’15), prefer to rent textbooks from the popular online site Chegg. “I usually use the bookstore as a last resort if I can’t find better prices on Chegg or Amazon, or if I need the textbook in a hurry,” says Walker.
A quick comparison of one popular textbook illustrates why sites like Amazon, Chegg, and Half.com have become increasingly popular with budget-conscious shoppers. A new copy of Principles of Modern Chemistry, currently lists for $298 at Barnes & Noble. The same book was found recently at Half.com for $235, at Chegg for $241.99, and at Amazon for $234.89, making it possible to save up to $63.17 on a brand new textbook. Those sites also offer many titles in used, rental, and digital formats, which can offer even more savings.
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 them. Big Words will scan online sellers to find the lowest price for a book and even take into account factors 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 less on another site within seven days of your purchase, the site will match the lower price.
There are a few things you should consider when buying online. First, factor in the shipping expenses. If you’re buying your textbooks from multiple retailers, the collective shipping costs may undercut the savings you might have expected. (Many sites do offer free shipping, however. 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. Prior to buying an e-book, check that it 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 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 marginal notetaking are allowed. If you exceed those conditions, you may wind up having to pay for the book.
An option for students who don’t want to hassle with the small print is to buy and sell directly from other students. There are several Facebook groups created specifically to connect students buying and selling books; one is BU Students Selling BU Books for BU Courses, which has over 4,100 members. Huynh says she’s been able to find some good bargains this way. “Usually students sell books cheaper because they are looking to get rid of them,” notes Huyhn. “You can also ask to see the book before you buy it, which is something you can’t do when buying on online sites.”
Despite the fact that you can sometimes find books for less online, some students prefer Barnes & Noble at BU for convenience and service. “I try to avoid Amazon or Chegg because I don’t like the hassle of having to compare prices and hunt down specific editions,” says Justin Leviano (CAS’16). Purchasing or renting at BU offers another important service: 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 bookstore also offers a return policy that is catered specifically to help BU students.
Irene Berman-Vaporis can be reached at email@example.com.