Here's reassuring proof that today's college students are picking up some valuable money-smarts before they graduate and head out to the real world: While the average price of a new textbook continues to climb (to $68 in 2011-2012 at campus bookstores, up from $65 a year earlier and from $56 in 2006-07), students are actually spending less on required course materials ($662, on average, down from $702 five years ago).
Federal action has helped. Thanks to rules that went into effect in July 2010, colleges must provide a list of required books prior to course registration, giving students more time to find the best deals out there.
Armed with shopping lists of titles and ISBN numbers, students are skipping their college bookstores to save hundreds. Let us show you how.
First, figure out whether you truly need the textbooks listed on your syllabuses. Many liberal arts classes use supplemental readings, posted online as free downloadable PDFs, far more than any textbooks. Some professors may list "required" textbooks simply to fulfill a university mandate — even if they have no intention of ever using them in class. Read each course's syllabus thoroughly before you fork over hundreds of dollars for books you might not need.
Next, see if you can get some books — especially for introductory courses — free online. California and Washington, for instance, are building digital libraries of free open-source textbooks for introductory courses, and the OpenStax College initiative offers five introductory textbooks online and is working on eight more, all free. Web start-up Boundless provides free, downloadable alternatives to popular textbooks, pulling free open-source content from around the Web and matching it with the original table of contents.
For the remainder of your textbooks, turn to a price-comparison Web site that scours the best deals at a wide variety of online retailers. Sites such as bigwords.com, CampusBooks.com and DealOz.com compare prices on new and used books, rentals and e-books. We prefer CampusBooks.com for its straightforward presentation and simple navigation. All the sites ultimately redirect you to individual sellers' Web sites, where you can purchase your books directly.
In general, used textbooks provide the best value, according to Jeff Nobbs, CEO of Extrabux.com. His site's analysis found that renting textbooks can save about 37% upfront compared with buying used textbooks, but the option to sell back your used texts makes them more cost-effective in the end.
For example, the retail price for a copy of Biology (ninth edition), required for many intermediate-level biology courses, is $213.00, according to bigwords.com. A used copy is only $69.69 plus $3.99 for shipping at Half.com, for a total of $73.68. Sell it back at the end of the semester for $68.19 (with free shipping) to sellbackyourbook.com, and your bottom line for the used book is $5.49. (All prices are as of August 23; your final cost will vary depending on when you buy and sell the book.) Or you can rent the same book for $42.59 with free shipping from Barnes and Noble. (The cost of textbook rentals can go up if you return books late. Policies vary by retailer.)
Extrabux.com found that on average, Amazon.com has the best buyback prices — about 20% more than the runner-up, Abebooks.com. However, Amazon doesn't pay cash for textbooks. Instead, the site issues an Amazon gift card in the amount owed.
Schedule your textbook purchases and returns to save the most money. The best week to buy or rent textbooks is August 20-26 because supply is at its peak, according to Nobbs. January 7-13 is the best week to sell your books because that's the beginning of the spring semester, when retailers restock their inventories.
E-Books: An Emerging Option
The idea of not having to lug around a pile of books is becoming more appealing to students. However, many students remain deterred by the costly prerequisite for buying or renting e-books: an e-reader or tablet computer to enable classroom access to your texts. For instance, the newest version of Apple's iPad (excluding the mini) starts at $499.
Electronic texts themselves aren't necessarily cheaper, and they often cost more than their used print counterparts. And many texts simply aren't yet available in electronic format.
You can rent or buy e-textbooks from retailers such as CourseSmart.com, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Each site has its own app for viewing your books, and most apps are available for all platforms. These apps allow you to search within your books, make notes, bookmark pages, highlight and copy text, and even watch related videos.
On the iPad, Apple's iBooks app allows students to read and interact with digital textbooks purchased from its iBooks Store. The per-textbook cost is capped at $14.99, but so far it focuses mostly on K-12 e-books. For more college texts, the free app Inkling offers more than 100 popular e-textbooks for undergraduate, business and medical students. You can purchase e-books in full or for as little as $0.99 per chapter.
To help you understand your options, we searched for the best prices for Financial Accounting (seventh edition), a popular undergraduate business textbook at the University of Texas-Austin, which U.S. News ranked as the best undergraduate school for accounting last year. The book runs a whopping $275 new and $139 used at the campus bookstore. Here's how our recommended sites stacked up:
New: $160.99 plus $3.99 shipping (redirected to half.com from CampusBooks.com)
Used: $67.41 plus $3.00 shipping (redirected to AbeBooks.com from CampusBooks.com)
Rental: $45.99 plus $5.99 shipping for 119days (redirected to Chegg.com from CampusBooks.com)
E-book: $ $89.10 for 110 days(no shipping, Amazon Kindle app)
New or good condition: $46.36 (free shipping, redirected to sellbackyourbook.com from CampusBooks.com)