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How much does the average college student spend on textbooks?

December 09, 2018

While preparing for college, wondering about how much college textbooks cost, is a good idea because they often cost much more than you may initially think. You are already spending a small fortune on college. Plan to sit down before reading the next sentence. The College Board reports that between course materials and textbooks, students can expect to spend at least $1,200 in 2017-2018 and between $1,240-$1,440 for the 2018-2019 academic year. This may not seem like a huge amount in the grand scheme of tuition and fees, but it’s definitely an item you want to be prepared for in order to budget accordingly.

While you may consider not purchasing a book for a particular class in order to save some money, consider this: “U.S. PIRG found that 94% of students who didn’t have the required textbook for a class felt that it negatively affected their academic progress.” So while it may be tempting to skip a book or think you can Google your way through the semester, it is important to consider the cost you are putting into your education. Do you really want to skimp in this area? Probably not.

While textbook costs are high, there are certain things you can do to save some decent money on this budget item. Here are several suggestions below to help ease the sting of the high cost of textbooks each semester.

  • Consider open-access or open resource materials. Open Educational Resources (OER's) are “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium...that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” These types of free materials can save hundreds of dollars. These resources generally do not “expire” after the student completes the class so that a student can access the materials and reference them for the entire length of the program.

  • Consider low-cost or free books when available.  It is worth it to do a little research to find out if your course textbooks are available for either free or at a lower-cost. Organizations like OpenStax tout that they “publish high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed college textbooks that are absolutely free online and low cost in print.” Also, you may be able to find some classic novels and other necessary course materials through Project Gutenberg.

  • Consider digital versions of textbooks. Some digital versions of the textbooks you need are available at a far lower cost than the hardcopy versions. Do some digging and find out if that is the case for your list of required books. It can be completely worth it for textbooks and other required readings.

  • Consider renting your textbooks. Have you ever thought to rent textbooks? This is a great option for many students. Often you can rent textbooks for a semester or longer at sites like BookByte, CampusBookRentals, and eCampus. Renting can be much more cost-effective than purchasing textbooks outright. If you are lucky enough to secure a copy at your local or community library, this can even result in a no-cost renting alternative.

  • Consider buying your textbooks used. Many websites sell used textbooks for significantly cheaper than brand new ones. Buy used on sites like Ebay, Chegg, or Amazon. You can even generally find a decent bounty of used textbooks at college bookstores if you try an shop early. It pays to consider earlier editions of some textbooks depending upon the course and subject which is something else to keep in mind.

  • Consider local booksellers. Some local booksellers collaborate and form partnerships  with colleges and universities in the vicinity and may offer discounts to college students. These may not be the largest discounts you will see, but you will save some if you take advantage of these types of discounts and you will be supporting a local, small business!

  • Consider scholarships for textbooks and supplies. Many scholarships are very specific. Definitely take the time to research and consider textbook scholarships to help cover the cost of your textbooks. If you are lucky, the scholarship will even cover lab costs and materials depending upon the scholarship organization offering it. When considering scholarships, do so early and plan to spend some time researching. It may be worth it more than you think while you are doing the footwork.

  • Consider selling your old textbooks. When you sell your old textbooks from previous semesters, you can use that money toward the new ones you need to purchase. You may not be able to get the full cost of the book back, but some subsidy is better than nothing at all. Also, if you sell for a college bookstore credit, you may get slightly more than you would if you sold it to them for cash.

  • Consider borrowing or sharing with a peer. If you have a friend who has already taken the class, perhaps they will be up for letting you borrow the required textbooks for the semester. If you are taking the class with someone you know, maybe you can split the cost and share the book. By doing this for a few semesters, you may end up saving quite a bit.  

Even with the 2008 Higher Education Act Reauthorization which requires textbook publishers to provide textbook prices to professors early and offer materials to students separately that were once a part of a larger, more expensive course bundle, costs are still relatively high in terms of books and supplies. Arming yourself with knowledge is important and knowing up front approximately how much you will be spending on textbooks and materials is truly helpful. By considering some of the suggestions above, you may actually save a pretty penny on an otherwise hefty college expense that is sometimes miscalculated or forgotten altogether.