The Checkout

Getting Schooled on the Cost of College Textbooks

In the category of things that didn't make it into the paper but are sitting around in my head....A couple of weeks ago, I caught Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin--the Illinois Democrat-- speaking at a Consumer Federation of America conference.

And the man was on fire.

The subject? College textbooks.

"It's a racket!" Durbin declared, referring to the high cost of college textbooks and the fact that students typically receive a pittance when they try to resell those textbooks back to university bookstores, which often have a cozy financial relationship with the schools.

Well, Congress is on the case. Or not, as the case may be.

The House last Thursday passed higher education legislation that included language Durbin came up with requiring publishers to disclose the cost of textbooks when they sell them to teachers and keeps publishers from bundling books and supplemental materials, which ups the cost for students.

The Senate passed its version of the same legislation already but without the textbook provision.

That means students and their parents will have to stay tuned to find out if that provision survives conference committee.

In the meantime, several states have also decided to take a whack at this, including Maryland.

I guess what is shocking to most everyone is how this market failure can persist in the age of Amazon,, and even craigslist for goodness sake. The short version is the people who pay for the books aren't the ones who are choosing them. You can read the longer version here.

Students and parents out there, talk to me. How much should I be setting aside for our kid's textbook slush fund? Will there even be textbooks by then? Or will I be sending her off to school with a Kindle and carpal tunnel?

By Annys Shin |  February 19, 2008; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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I worked two jobs to pay my way through night school. The cost of textbooks in those days was extremely high. However, the university had a 'buy back' policy where they would buy back used textbooks for a pittance and re-sell them again at a higher price. They were making money hand over fist on textbooks. For example, I buy a book at $90 for one semester. I sell it back to them for $20. They re-sell it to another student (assuming the prof. assigns the same textbook for the course) for $75. The university has made $145 from that book; now multiply that by the number of students and number of books involved. Yes, it is a racket, along with a lot of other costs involved in high education.

I suggest you tell your daughter to work her way through school and ease the burden on your wallet.

Posted by: former working student | February 19, 2008 9:19 AM

Books are expensive, but how expensive tends to depend on the discipline. My history books were nothing compared to a friends biology books. When time is short, there are often few options to the campus bookstore, which is really unfortunate.
And, even when an independent bookseller tries to compete with the campus bookstore, the campus store often finds a way to drive them out of business.

Posted by: university worker | February 19, 2008 10:02 AM

I used to teach college level courses, and since then I have taken undergrad and grad level courses, including one at a community college.

I believe that universities should require instructors to include the price of the textbook on the syllabus. That is the only way to know for sure that they know how much they are expecting students to pay. I routinely was expected to pay $150 for grad texts for one class. Contrast that with 35 cents for a textbook for a history class at the community college. The instructor had us buy the 5th edition of the text, rather than the 6th. There were so many 5th editions floating around that I got one in excellent condition.

The reality is that frequently there is very little change between the newest version of a textbook and the most recent previous versions. Students should always ask professors if a previous version will do. Chances are, it will--unless the professor is the one who wrote the textbook.

Posted by: former instructor | February 19, 2008 10:33 AM

I put the ISBN number into google, and have had no problems so far obtaining gently used textbooks for a fraction of what the VCU bookstore sells them for my grad level classes.

Posted by: RiverCityRoller | February 19, 2008 10:47 AM

I spent about $500-$600 per semester in college on textbooks when I got into my upper-level accounting classes. Over the course of 4 years, I probably spent about $3,000. I probably received about $400-$600 back for those books by re-selling them. There are many options to get around spending that much...Amazon, which was mentioned, is a great resource that I use now when buying books for my 2nd degree at community college. At many universities, students have taken matters into their own hands and have created businesses buying and reselling books with much lower margins than the school bookstore. Also, if students join clubs or organizations with others in their major, they have the opportunity to get to know upperclassmen that may be able to sell them their books for much less.

Posted by: cm | February 19, 2008 11:08 AM

I generally pay between $300 and $500 a semester for books, but can only sell them back to the bookstore for about $50 to $90 at the end of the semester. One of the biggest problems I've encountered is the fact that publishers come out with new editions so often. I often have a difficult time selling back books because a new edition has been released and the book I had purchased will no longer be used in the classroom. Publishers change very little between editions but "update" them regularly so that students cannot buy used textbooks.

Posted by: Texas Student | February 19, 2008 3:13 PM

The real issue, as pointed out by others, is the frequent "new editions" which represent very limited changes in content, but make it difficult to impossible to take advantage of the used textbook market. Professors should be required to defend their reasons for selecting the X edition over the X-1 edition of a textbook. Seriously, are there really changes in history or cellular biology?

My daughter has been paying $350-500 per semester at Radford and it seems like the more expensive books are hardly used. She and a couple of her roommates share textbooks for common courses and this is one way that helps to minimize costs. It takes a bit of planning, but has not been an issue this year.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | February 19, 2008 3:37 PM

"Seriously, are there really changes in history or cellular biology?"
How important they are depends on the level at which you're teaching, but yes, there are changes in cell bio.

Posted by: biologist | February 19, 2008 3:58 PM

I'm a senior in engineering at a private college, and I end up spending about $700 on textbooks every semester (and this is buying used books). I typically get about $60 back on those books (that's total). The previous posters are correct that the material of earlier editions tends not to change, especially in science books. However, the publishers make it more difficult to use the older editions by changing around the order of certain chapters and sections, and changing the questions at the ends of those chapters, so you have to borrow someone's book to get the correct questions for your homework.

Posted by: Liza C | February 19, 2008 4:03 PM

It's frustrating when books come automatically packaged with a CD or some other add-on that you rarely use, but you have to pay for it because they don't sell the book by itself.

Posted by: A | February 19, 2008 6:07 PM

Oh. Good. Gravy.

Faculty should justify their book selection (Lester Burnham); Students should ask if former versions will suffice (former instructor).

As a (current) college prof, I'd be happy just to see my students buy *any* text related to the material. Apparently I'm to regurgitate the text rather than build upon the foundation it provides (and assume they have read it).

Part of the reason why texts have such high costs is that these texts, unlike pop culture books, are run in such small numbers. All of the set-up costs, printing expenses, etc., etc., (fixed costs) still have to be paid even given that there is a very small market for these texts (which would explain why history - a typical General Education - required - course texts are more expensive than biology and more specialized texts).

It's easy to charge $34.95 for a Harry Potter novel knowing that millions will be sold; but they come a whining when they pay $70 for a text that will educate and elevate their understanding of something other than pop fiction.

Posted by: cguy04 | February 24, 2008 11:41 PM

As a part-time student at GMU, textbook costs in my B.S. discipline are about equal to 14% of my tuition. Or they would if I actually bought everything at the university store. Textbook prices my first time through college in 00-04 ranged from about $80-130, now from about $130-170.

Posted by: cm202bc | February 25, 2008 9:51 AM

Textbooks are a total ripoff. And, the textbook sales companies are definitely in cahoots with the universities.

It really irks me when I try and sell a totally new edition of a $150 textbook back to the store, and they offer me like $8, saying that it's already being discontinued for a newer edition. But then, a semester later I see the same version I had being sold as the latest edition; it seems that sometimes the book sales companies are flip-flopping editions every other semester to keep people from selling their books to friends or from making any money back.

It should definitely be illegal.

Posted by: Chris | February 26, 2008 1:20 PM

Just a comment about the cost of textbooks when it comes to various subjects: sure, that biology or chemistry text cost me $150 and the history book only $25, but I never had a history course with fewer than 5 books. Same with political science, upper level foreign language, etc. In the end all of the costs for various subjects tended to even out. The trick was to simply shop around to find the lower prices. I spent around $650 every semester for books. (My least favorite were the books you bought, but only needed for a chapter. Or professors had fewer books and instead a printed packet of several hundred pages that cost $75.)

Posted by: J | February 26, 2008 3:20 PM

There are several ways to save money on textbooks.

First, of you are on campus, check out the university bulletin boards at the end of the semester. Many students are willing to sell all of their texts for a fraction of the original cost, especially those that the campus bookstore won't buy back.

Second, check the web. I am in graduate school and have found most of my textbooks for less than half the list price. Try, amazon,, ebay, or abebooks. I found one of my texts, listed at over $150.00 for 20.00 on ebay because it had "highlighting" in it. Great! Less work for me! One additional note on buying online, factor in shipping. Sometimes it is cheaper to buy a new book with "free" shipping from amazon, than buy a used text and pay for shipping.

Third, if you and a friend are in the same class, you could possibly share a textbook.

I have only rarely had to suck it up and pay full price for a book. If you take the time to search you can save money.

Posted by: Rosanna Lindquist | February 28, 2008 2:18 PM

The fact that many students aren't as diligent as they should be with completing their reading doesn't justify outlandish textbook prices. The fact that a "current college prof" thinks Harry Potter books are $34.95 shows how skewed their ideas are of what is reasonable.

Posted by: formerstudent | February 28, 2008 3:17 PM

What got me through the last years of school was to buy the old edition (or 2 back) and then borrow a friends (or Prof's) copy of the book to make a photo copy of any book assigned HW questions. We all know the material barely changes between editions, so why buy the new one?

Posted by: Camiolo | February 29, 2008 9:11 AM

Take the shrillness down a notch, and maybe we can talk about reality. In the meantime, I'll just posit that most students are paying a lot more, without complaint, for their wireless service over the course of a year than they are for their textbooks. When you consider what a good textbook (yes, there are such things) offers you in the near term--e.g., solid grounding in the basics of the subject matter of your course--and in the long term--e.g., greater earnings capacity as a result of your college-educated brain--then the cost of a textbook comes into clearer focus. A $100 textbook that is solid, well-written, and comprehensive is worth a hell of a lot more to any self-respecting student than the month or two of text-messaging and cellphone service that the same amount of money buys.

Posted by: Editor | March 10, 2008 2:57 PM

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Posted by: Landon nptaj | April 11, 2008 10:45 AM

I'm about to graduate from college and I have paid about $1200 a year for books. I pay $40 a month for cellphone service, which shows how much the last poster is out of touch with the true costs of things. I had 23 textbooks this semester and the cheapest one was $50. This is outrageous considering I can go buy a regular book (for pleasure reading) for about $25 usually.

Posted by: Steve | May 8, 2008 11:43 AM

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