College Textbooks: Tools of the Trade

This is the first of three posts about one of a student’s most valuable tools – her textbooks.  In this post, we’ll consider some essential facts and tips about the importance of textbooks.  In our next posts, we’ll consider some alternative ways to purchase books and some thoughts about reselling them later.

Aside from tuition, one of the major expenses your college student will encounter during the college years will be the cost of textbooks.  Students often head off to college knowing that they will need to buy their books and supplies, but having no idea how much to expect to pay.  As college parents, there are some important points about textbooks which you can help your student anticipate and understand.

Textbooks are going to be a major expense.

The cost of textbooks has risen significantly over the last few years.  In fact, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published in 2005, the cost of college textbooks has increased at twice the rate of inflation since the mid 1980’s.  Make Textbooks Affordable, a student led advocacy group that is working to reduce the cost of textbooks, estimates that a typical college student today spends more than $900 a year on books.

There are several reasons why textbooks may be so expensive.

  • Production costs have gone up.
  • Textbooks now come with many supplementary materials which are expensive, and which students may or may not use.
  • Most textbooks go into new editions every three to four years, which means that used copies will not be available.
  • Many publishing companies have merged and consolidated, reducing the competition within the industry.
  • Another reason, according to James Koch of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance is the “broken market”.  There is a disconnect in the choosing and purchasing of textbooks.  Textbooks are chosen by faculty members, who are not the ones who purchase the books.  Textbooks are purchased by students, who are not the ones who choose the books.  General principles of market demand are not at work.

Textbooks are an essential teaching tool.

Because textbooks are so very expensive, some students may consider opting to skip purchasing the textbook.  They may count on class notes, or their natural intelligence, or sheer luck, to get them through the course.  The reality is that for many students, in high school, this may have worked.  If you were in class every day, and listened to the teacher, you might do just fine in the course without reading assigned material.

This is less likely to be the case in college.  Many instructors will spend class time doing things other than lecturing on the material in the textbook.  They assume that the student has read and understood it and they spend time in class expanding on that material.  Tests and exams, however, will cover material both from class and from the textbook.

Make sure your college student understands the importance of having, and using, a textbook.  This is not the place to cut expenses.

Your student may be able to resell the textbook, but will not recoup much money.

Many students sell back their books at the end of the term.  How much money they receive will depend on who they sell it to, what condition the book is in, and how new the book is.  College bookstores usually buy used textbooks, but offer very little money.  There are some on-line services that will buy used texts, and their prices are usually a bit better.  The best sources for selling used textbooks are fellow students.  If students can find other students who may be taking the same course the following term and can sell directly to them, that will be the best deal for both. However, because textbooks often go into new editions after as little as three years, your student may not be able to sell his book if a new edition is about to be released.  This is also an important factor that he should check before he buys a used book from another student.

Buying textbooks early is important.

Students who plan to buy their textbooks new from the college bookstore can usually take their time and buy them during the first week of classes.

However, if your student hopes to purchase books on-line, he should try to find a source well before the beginning of the term.  Shipping for books is often slow.  This is particularly true at the beginning of a semester when many students are ordering books.  Students who wait until the beginning of the semester to order books on line may find themselves without a book for the first weeks of the semester.  This may put them behind and is not a good way to begin a new course.  Many campus bookstores have reading lists available well before the beginning of the semester and these lists are often available on-line.  Your student should get book information as early as possible.

Textbooks are essential tools for college students.  Anything that you can do, as a parent, to reinforce the message that books should be purchased early and used liberally, will benefit your student – and be appreciated by his instructors!

Note: Some links in our post are for affiliate products. If you use our links, College Parent Central receives a small percentage of your purchase price. This does not change the cost to you.  We think it’s only fair to let you know that.

In our next post, we’ll look at possible alternatives to purchasing textbooks new from the college bookstore, and finally, we’ll look at reselling books.


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5 thoughts on “College Textbooks: Tools of the Trade”

  1. I really think that the best way for us (college students) to save money on our textbooks is to buy (and sell) our textbooks to each other. Pretty much like craigslist.

    The only website that I found that actually has students posting their books is

    I’m pretty sure they’re open to a majority of the schools (universities that is) nationwide.
    Hoope that helps! :)

    • That’s a great suggestion, Christiana! Some schools might even have literal or virtual bulletin boards where students can post books for sale or books needed. Selling at your own school would mean that no one needs to pay for shipping. If your school doesn’t have one, why not see about starting one?

  2. Right, but the statement “The cost of producing textbooks has risen…” is just incorrect, or at the very least it’s misleading. Books are not a new technology. The ancillary materials might not be listed as “optional,” but they might also not be necessary. If the student asks a professor and finds out that a CD/study guide/etc won’t really be used, they might elect to search for the textbook alone which will be cheaper.

  3. Hazardous Paste –
    Wow! Great additional information. Thanks for adding your expertise on this topic.
    Interesting perspective on the rising cost of textbooks. You may be right about the costs of actual textbooks not going up, but since in many cases the ancillaries are not optional, the costs have essentially gone up.
    It’s a significant expense no matter how you look at it.

  4. I used to work at an independent college bookstore. Things I learned:

    1. Campus bookstores (those like Barnes and Noble) often mark up the price significantly because they think they have no competition. This is especially true for new editions (that might not even be new). Whenever possible, try to find cheaper in a local bookstore, eBay, or Amazon.

    2. The best way to get textbook info is by e-mailing the professor directly. 9 times out of 10 the professor will be happy to send you a copy of the syllabus that should have the title and ISBN number of the text being used.

    3. When buying early, reselling early is also important. Especially if the class is large, only the first students to sell their book back will get a maximum of 50% back (and that’s the very best case scenario).

    4. Cost of books depends greatly on your major. English majors won’t spend much because they’ll “only” have to buy a dozen small paperbacks. Business majors really get hit hard with big hardcovers that go into new editions every 2-3 years.

    5. It is worth asking the professor if using an older edition is possible. Especially in the sciences, most of the material is the same and the only real differences are in the problems that might be used for problem sets.

    6. Sharing textbooks with a friend in the same class is the bane of bookstores, but a savior for student’s wallets.

    7. I beg to differ with your first point, because textbook costs have *not* gone up significantly in the past few years. The main reason for the increase in price is due to the costs associated with the supplemental material you mentioned.

    So, I hope I didn’t steal any of your thunder with this comment (certainly did not mean to, sorry!), but the book industry was a fairly big part of my life for a while. Buying books is probably one of the least pleasant times of the semester, I always try to make it less so.


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