smartmoney.com - On average, college students shelled out $900 a semester fortextbooks, according to a 2005 General Accounting Office report.It's just as bad today, says Nicole Allen, textbooks programdirector for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, aconsumer advocate.
Students can pay $200 or more for a single science book.College-customized texts (where schools receive a portion of thebook's sales from the publisher) only exacerbate the problem bylimiting students' ability to sell used copies, says Edgar Dworsky,founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a consumer advocate.
The situation is so bad that Congress has stepped in. OnThursday, it passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Amongother provisions, the bill requires publishers to share pricinginformation with professors and forces them to unbundle packages oftextbooks and supplementary materials so students can buy onlyitems they need. "It's a critical step," says Allen. "Textbooksreally can be the difference between affording higher education anddropping out."
Government intervention isn't the only way cash-strappedstudents can better their odds of affording their textbooks. Hereare some other ways students can save:
Ditch the heavy hardcover for an electronic book, and save asmuch as 50%, says Dworsky. In May, six of the biggest textbookpublishers, including Pearson (PSO: 9.92, +0.09, +0.91%) andMcGraw-Hill Education (MHP: 25.00, +0.97, +4.03%), launchedCourseSmart.com, which sells subscriptions to digital copies oftextbooks and other course materials. A 180-day subscription to"Earth Science" (12th Edition), for example, costs $56.67, or 50%less than the print version.
Check with individual publishers, (Cengage Learning andSpringer, among others, have their own eTextbook sites), as well assites like CafeScribe.com to compare prices. Also, ask the collegebookstore if they offer electronic books. At the University ofDayton in Ohio, students pay $41 for electronic access to "MakingSense of Movies," saving 41% off a new $70 text.
There are some downsides to electronic texts, however. Unliketheir paper counterparts, they can't be returned. Also,subscriptions limit access to a semester or two and copyrightstypically prevent printing more than a few pages.
Price Comparison Sites
You can buy almost anything used online these days andtextbooks are no exception.
To find the best deals, check textbook-specific pricecomparison search engines, such as Bigwords.com,CheapestTextbooks.com and Booksprice.com.
Hunting for "Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion"(regularly $54.95 new) through CheapestTextbooks.com turned uplistings at eight online retailers. The cheapest: $4.21 for a usedcopy at Half.com (plus $3.49 shipping). Overall, that's a savingsof 86%.
Once finals are over, the first stop most students make is atthe bookstore, where they hope to sell their books and recoup somecash. If the store needs the text for the next semester, thenthey'll be lucky to get 50% of their money back.
Web-based textbook rental services, such as Chegg.com,BookRenter.com and CampusBookRentals.com, offer a lot morecertainty. Using these services, students pay as little as a thirdof a book's price to borrow it for a set period — usually asemester, says Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the NationalAssociation of College Stores. (More than 60 of NACS's membercampus stores have their own textbook rental programs.) Chegg.com,for example, mails a copy of "Compact Bedford Introduction toLiterature" for $26.88 a semester. That's a savings of 59% off theprice of the new version.
One warning: Renting isn't always cheaper than buying a usedtext, cautions Schmidt. Many rented texts don't include thesupplementary materials like CDs or workbooks. Also, these servicestypically require books be kept in good condition. Play fast andloose with a highlighter, and you could end up forking over thefull purchase price.
Subsidized and Open-Source Textbooks
Believe it or not, it's possible to legally downloadtextbooks for free thanks to a handful of new sites and services:
Freeload Press subsidizes the cost of offering dozens ofeTextbooks for free by selling ad space on its web site, and on thepages of the books. Its current free offerings include "Guide toBusiness Valuation" ($30.95 new). Print versions of the textbooksoffered on the site run $19 to $40, plus shipping.
Project Gutenberg offers more than 25,000 free eBooks andaudiobooks for older, out-of-copyright texts, including literaryclassics like "Jane Eyre" and "The Iliad." (At Barnes & Noble(BKS: 17.39, +0.78, +4.69%), you'd pay $7.95 for each.)
The biggest pitfall to free texts right now is a lack ofselection. The sites are worth a look, but don't bank on findingall the books on your required reading list just yet.
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