How to Afford the High Price of College Textbooks

In the US, the average college student spends $890.00 a year on textbooks. And that’s just the average! Students who major in science and engineering can pay twice that amount per year.

Of course some lucky few students are able to get enough financial aid to cover the cost of their textbooks, but for the rest of the student body, it’s important to find ways to cut the cost of their books.

As someone who used to work in financial aid at a large university, I would strongly advise students to look into every kind of aid they can get. Even if you think you can’t get anything, it’s worth it to apply and to talk to your aid adviser at least once a year. They might have heard of a scholarship for someone in your class or major that you weren’t previously able to get.

And then there are loans. Technically any student, no matter what your family’s financial background is, can get unsubsidized federal students loans. You can use your loan money to pay for your books, but I would strongly advise students to take out the least amount of debt they can while they’re in college.

I think the best way to save money is to trade with people in your major. You could even put an ad in the student paper or put a notice up in the building where your major is located asking if people want to meet at the end of the semester and trade books.

The problem with any kind of book trading is that for some reason most professors feel the need to order the newest editions of textbooks every semester. (In fact I have always wondered if professors don’t get some kind of kickback from either the bookstore or the publisher.) Most of the new editions only contain three or four differences, but they change the page numbering so that it’s very easy to get confused when the professor tells you what pages you need to read for a certain assignment.

If you’re in a class such as Humanities or English, chances are your textbooks are going to be common literature classics that can be found anywhere, even for free on line. At the Project Gutenberg site, you can find thousands of free ebooks including the entire works of Mark Twain on-line. If there’s a book whose copyright has expired, chances are you can find it on their site.

Some universities such as Ohio state are trying to help students cut textbook costs by offering commonly used textbooks for free use inside the library. The problem comes in when they’re aren’t enough books to go around for everyone. You could photocopy pages from the book as you go, but you never know if that book is going to be gone the next time you need it.

You can buy used textbooks from the bookstore or from on-line sellers. The advantage of buying them directing from the bookstore is that you can look through the books to find the one that is in the best shape. When I was in college I couldn’t stand seeing the left behind highlighter marks of my fellow students. If you’re not picky about that kind of thing, buy on-line could be a good option for you. Just be sure that you figure in the shipping costs to your total to make sure you get the best deal.

Students should also wait until they go to class the first time to find out which books they really need. Oftentimes professors will order multiple books and then will decide not to use some of them, or they will order four books and let students pick one they want to write about.

At the end of the semester, you can sell your books back to the bookstore, but don’t expect to make much. You will be lucky to get back 10% of what you paid for the book, less if it was used when you bought it. To get more for your used books, don’t highlight or make any marks in the book during the semester. That way you’ll have more money to spend on books for the next semester.

Another way to save on your textbook bill is to pay with cash if you can. Don’t charge it to your student account or you will be more likely to pick up a little something on the way to the cash register. These days college bookstores look like a mini department store. Avoid temptation and avoid the makeup counter and the racks of college sweatshirts on your way back to the textbooks.

And if you can’t find a way to sell your used books for a decent price, remember it’s ok to hold on to them. Twenty years from now, those books could remind you of one of the best times of your life. (And it’s fun to see how soon all that information you learned becomes obsolete.)