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Monday, July 26, 2010

College Textbook Costs: Yet Once More

Yet once more* the college textbook cost theme. Funny About Money wrote about it; I have taken on the issue several times. Now the New York Times has taken on the issue, with opinions from many experts.

Why are textbooks so expensive? Because they can be. Because the price is lost amid other expenses. Because people might be paying with borrowed money, which, sadly, may be seen as "funny money." (It's not.) One of the experts in the New York Times piece compared the textbook industry to BIG PHARMA: the people who "prescribe" (doctors, teachers) have no idea what the item (drug, book) costs. The purchaser (patient, student) has to suck it up. Well, guess what! I made this analogy on this very blog ages ago. And I'm not an emeritus professor of economics. I feel so, well, thrilled.

I may have an unusual perspective: I am a teacher, but my school has a rental system: students pay only $18.00 per course, for up to two textbooks. So I am NOT GUILTY! I am also a parent of two college students, however, and their schools do not participate in the rental system.

I have discovered that trying to save money on textbooks is like aiming for a moving target. All the strategies work--sometimes, sort of, but don't count on it.

--Buy it and sell it when you're done: Good idea, but textbook publishers try to circumvent the used book market. I bought a 2008 Art History text at Goodwill a few days ago as a test case. At a quarter, it was not a big investment. This book sold for $115.00 new. It is now in a new edition. New editions also often come out in October or February, thereby making your recently purchased text worthless.

--Buy on Amazon: Textbook sellers are not dumb. Unless the book is getting near its new edition date, it is likely to be pretty expensive.

--Rent from Chegg: If you look at their rental prices, you will see that this is not a cheap route.

And so on. I have spent HOURS trying to get books cheaper, with little success. Here is one example: My daughter needed a French book last year. It was $175.00. I found a used copy at Powells for $75.00. Did I save $100.00? Guess again.

On the first day of class, the teacher announced that students needed a current computer access code for the text. These came with the new books. For those who bought used...the code cost $100.00!

I have loads of similar stories, which I will bore you with only on request. It is a dreary tale. Just don't believe all that cheery advice on "buying used" and "renting from Chegg." If my experience is any indication, you won't save much money.

So...what am I doing this year? Well, the tax code changed in 2009. The first $2000.00 in educational expenses gets a tax credit. For most people, this is eaten up by tuition and fees. However, if you are on tuition scholarship (Hope in Georgia, TOPS in Louisiana) or at a junior college with low costs, you can now--as of 2009--get the tax credit for books. Thank you Congress! Feel my love.

*Yet once more: The opening words of Lycidas, a pastoral elegy by John Milton, which has an academic theme.


Logan Leger said...

I'm always burdened by the exorbitant cost of textbooks. It's pure theft and in need of regulation.

In any case, when I was an undergrad I could often buy my books on Amazon for much cheaper than the campus bookstore sold them for. It was a pain to buy online though. I'd spend hours looking up and verifying isbns and editions to ensure I got the right book. Some classes (like computer science) I didn't even buy the book and one semester I even shared with a friend. Still, I'd spend $200 - 350 a semester.

Now that I'm in my final semesters, this has become difficult. Engineering books aren't often sold used because engineers tend to keep them for reference books. Plus, all my professors require the latest edition. Because of this it often doesn't make sense to buy Amazon and I just have to eat the cost. I'm looking at over $600 this semester.

It's like total usury. The publishers are totally exploiting us, but what can we do? I'm just hoping that iPad editions start coming out — which they should soon — and that they're much more affordable.

Anonymous said...

I like for textbooks.

Shelley said...

In reading this, it strkes me that it almost seems as though the 'system' (institution and employees?) want higher education to be expensive and out of reach for some. After all, if some part of education isn't exclusive, it might not be as valued to have it. Or does that not make any sense at all?

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff said...

When I was in college (2001-2005) and for my husband's grad school books (2009-2010), we looked in this order:

1) (branch of Ebay for books and movies).

If you find it there, write down the cheapest price you'd be happy with based on the different conditions the books are listed in.


Sometimes they can even beat's price.


They have had the cheapest once but I always check.

4) Barnes & Noble and the campus bookstore.

Usually is the cheapest, sometimes Amazon...I only had to use the bookstore a few times in college due to new revisions being required and they weren't on Amazon yet. We never used the campus bookstore for grad school.

Good luck!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Logan--Since I presume you have TOPS--check out the tax break I mention at the end. It now includes books.

@nicole and maggie--Thanks for the tip!

@Shelley--Textbooks don't cost as much in other countries--big biz in US.

@BFS--It seems you had better luck than we have had--I agree with the order of places to check.

Funny about Money said...

Computer access code!? Heaven help us.

That is inexcusable. Is there any reason classmates can't be put in groups or group themselves informally so they can all access the computer using one member's code? What if each kid in the group paid the person who sprung for the new textbook $10 or so? That would bring down her cost and let the students who can't afford to spring for $175 for a French text(!!!!!!!) save their money.

With gouges like that, it would be cheaper to send your kid to France to major in French.

Seriously: I've read elsewhere that some American students can save on college costs by attending school in Canada. Haven't tried to confirm that, though...

Frugal Scholar said...

@Funny-See my post today on codes. As for Canada--Canadian colleges, like McGill, cost around $25,000 Canadian for international students. This was a super-deal some years ago, when the exchange rate favored the US dollar--so McGill would be around $16,000. Now the currencies are par, but the Canadian institutions still offer pretty good value relative to comparable private colleges. (McGill is public).