College Textbooks: Latest Trends and How to Save Money This Fall

Prices Still Outrageous, But Signs Point to Change
For Immediate Release

BOSTON (July 24, 2013) -- As students across the country prepare to return to campus this fall, textbooks remain one of the priciest items on their shopping lists.  A new report by the Government Accountability Office released last month found that textbook prices have increased 82% over the last decade and continue to rise 6% per year, about three times faster than the rate of inflation.  The College Board estimates that students spend $1,200 on books and supplies annually. 

"Textbooks are the top hidden expense of college," said Nicole Allen, Affordable Textbooks Advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), a leading advocacy group on the issue of textbook costs.  "It's common to find price tags over $200 each for introductory subjects like Calculus and Biology, and to add insult to injury, many of the books end up worth mere pennies by the end of the semester."

The culprit behind outrageous prices is the publishing industry, which notoriously engages in practices like issuing unnecessary new editions to undermine the used book market and 'bundling' textbooks with single-use passcodes and workbooks that eliminate resale value.  Even digital 'e-textbook' alternatives offer scant savings and carry restrictions like printing limits and expiration dates.  Publishers can get away with artificially high prices because students are a captive market and need to buy their assigned book no matter the cost.  

New this year are several developments suggest the textbooks market may be reaching a turning point.  Last month Cengage Learning, one of the largest publishing companies, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, reporting over $5.8 billion dollars in debt.  A contributing factor is the falling number of students who pay full fare for textbooks, since exorbitant prices have driven students toward cost-saving measures like used books, renting or foregoing textbooks altogether.  Cengage Learning's bankruptcy may be a sign that publishers have reached the limit of how deeply they can gouge students. 

Meanwhile, a more positive change is the growing movement for open educational resources (OER), which are textbooks and other materials published online under a license allowing their free and open use.  In the last year, both California and the Canadian province of British Columbia have created programs to develop a total of 90 open textbooks, which would be free online and cost $30-40 in print.  A program in Washington State called the Open Course Library has already developed free online resources for 81 courses, saving students $5.5 million since 2011.  OpenStax College, a project out of Rice University, is developing open textbooks for the 25 largest enrollment courses, which could ultimately save students $750 million.  All of these developments promise alternatives to expensive, traditional textbooks that students are struggling to afford.

"With today's technology, there is no excuse for textbooks to cost $200 each," continued Allen. "It's clearer than ever that the old model of publishing textbooks doesn't work in today's world, and that new models like open educational resources are the future."

Although thousands of professors across the country have started to use OER, most students should prepare to experience sticker shock as usual this fall.  The good news is that there are many ways that students can avoid paying full price for their textbooks.  

Here are our favorite tips to save on textbooks.  For expanded tips and more information, visit


1. Start with the right information.  For each book, you'll want the ISBN - the unique identifier code that goes with each book - and the title, author, publisher and edition (in case you want to search for alternate editions).

2. Shop around online. The Internet offers a huge selection of new and used books for sale, which almost always means savings.  New prices can be up to 20% off, and used books 25-50% off. Try retailers like and, or go straight to a price comparison engine like to search hundreds of websites at once.  Some sites also sell "international editions" that are as a fraction of the cost of US editions but may come with slight differences.  No matter what book you buy, just make sure the seller is reliable and that you leave time for shipping.

3. Rent. The single best way to save money up front is renting.  Try websites like or, or rent locally through the campus bookstore.  Rental prices are usually around 40% of the list price, but remember there won't be anything to sell back at the end of the semester.

4. Swap books with other students. Cut out the middle man by using Facebook, Craigslist or simply asking around to find other students with the book you need. 

5. Consider e-textbooks.  Surprisingly, e-textbooks don't offer the best savings: they usually cost 50% of the list price and expire at the end of the semester, so they can't be saved or sold back.  But tech savvy students may find the search features and portability a plus.  Try for a wide selection of e-textbooks. 

6. Look for coupon codes.  Watch the Facebook and Twitter streams of textbook retailers to capture special deals, or check out coupon sites like or

7. Compare with the bookstore.  If you're buying books last minute, you may have no choice, but even if you do have other options it's worth seeing what the bookstore has to offer.  Also, buying at the bookstore is the best way to guarantee you'll get exactly what your professor assigned. 

8. Save your receipts.$2,500 federal tax credit is available to some students for their textbook purchases and other qualifying higher education expenses.   

9. Borrow or substitute. If you're really stuck, you might be able to borrow a copy from the library or from your professor.  You can also ask whether an older edition of the textbook would be ok, since they usually have minimal differences but sell for much less. 

10. Advocate affordable alternatives.  Finally, you can help change textbook prices in the long run by advocating for open educational resources and other less expensive alternatives.  Send professors the link to the Open Textbook Catalog, which lists over a hundred free online books in dozens of subjects, or ask them to sign our statement in support of open textbooks.  

"Overall, the biggest tip is to shop around and be a smart consumer.  There are more ways to save than ever before, so make sure to know your options and figure out which one offers the best benefits," concluded Allen. 

About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.  For more information visit