IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Textbooks are expensive. Here are some ways to cut down on the cost.

Want to save money on textbooks? A new subscription-based service is trying to address the pain point, but there are a few ways to cut costs.
Image: College Textbooks for Sale
College textbooks for sale organized on shelves inside an educational school retail bookstore.MyLoupe / UIG via Getty Images

When it comes to planning for college, probably the first thing we have to seriously think about is money. Though some schools, like NYU, which just announced free tuition for medical students, are making powerful strides to make education accessible, the cost of a bachelor’s degree has catapulted over the years and is continuing to rise.

Meanwhile, the student debt crisis worsens, topping $1.52 trillion.

The cost of tuition may be the biggest punch our bank accounts take as we embark on college, but the fees don’t end there. Students (and/or their parents) typically also have to pay for lodging, meal plans and school supplies. Then there’s the another doozy: textbooks, which average $203 per book, according to data from Follett; rising over 800 percent in price over the past 40 years.

Students will skip meals or take fewer classes just to save on textbooks

A new survey by Cengage, a global education and technology company, shows that all too often students simply can’t swing the cost of textbooks, with nearly half of current and former college students (43 percent) saying they’ve skipped meals to afford course materials, and 31 percent taking fewer classes to manage the financial burden.

“That students are skipping meals to afford textbooks strikes me as unconscionable,” Michael E. Hansen, CEO of Cengage tells NBC News BETTER. “And then you have students saying they won’t pursue a major because it is too expensive. We're complaining — rightly so — about needing more women in STEM, so why put these extra barriers in front of them? It was quite earth shattering from my perspective to see how society is forcing people to make these trade-offs.”

A digital streaming service for textbooks could solve the problem

However alarming the findings of the survey, they weren’t published without a reason and a ready solution. Cengage recently launched Cengage Unlimited, a subscription-based platform, which (much like Netflix does for television shows, or Spotify does for music) gives students access to a digital library of textbooks (any of the more than 22,000 Cengage has published or licensed). It costs $119 per semester or $180 a year. If you prefer a hard copy, you can rent a physical textbook for a semester for $7.99 (the cost of shipping and returning), and you can also keep six e-books for up to a year after your subscription ends. A subscription also gives access to study materials that students can customize as they see fit.

“The affordability problem of textbooks is obvious and one that has gotten worse over the last 15 years,” says Hansen. “So, we thought, why not offer unlimited access through a digital streaming service, which is how most of us consume our media, anyway? It was a ton of work to make sure that authors had their rights met, and honestly, we were a bit [concerned] about how universities would respond as they’ve shown reluctance to change, but we’ve had an incredibly positive reaction from faculty, and campus bookstores have signs up [advertising] Cengage Unlimited. Now, it’s just about getting the word out to students.”

It starts with a dialogue between faculty and students

Students don’t get to pick the textbooks they’re assigned, so, if a professor chooses a book that isn’t available through Cengage, they can’t access it with their subscription. This is why students should consult faculty before subscribing. Professors may be receptive to students’ needs, especially when the needs revolve around that student’s desire to succeed.

“I find that many professors are empathetic and listen to the concerns of students,” says Timothy J. Jaconette, founder, Advanced Admit College Admission Consulting.

“I can think of one professor at Berkeley who put an open-source book [on his syllabus] for his statistics class, which was a neat move. It helped students to not even think about cost. So, if students come to professors and say, ‘We use this subscription service,’ that would motivate professors to jump on the bandwagon. As a whole, this idea of subscribing rather than buying could very well be a step in the right direction, and honestly, I could see many universities build it into their budget.”

Other ways to get textbooks cheaply

Cengage Unlimited does sound to be a promising option, and I wish I’d had it when I was in college more than a decade ago, when I was in fact, one of those students who dropped a course because one of the many required books cost over $200; but if this isn’t an option for you, know that there are other ways to save.

Here’s what Lindy Schneider, aka America’s College Advisor recommends:

  • Buy used textbooks.Search on Google for used textbook sources and buy the book secondhand. Make sure the edition and ISBN number are the same as what the course requires. The course may require a newer edition that has added material.”
  • Rent textbooks. “Renting a textbook from any of the many textbook rental companies can save a good chunk of money if the student is diligent about sending it back before the return deadline. The books can be rented for an entire semester. Again, the student must make sure the ISBN number of the book matches with the textbook that is required. Places to rent used textbooks:,,,, to name just a few.”
  • Barter. “Start a textbook Meetup group on-campus. Students with textbooks they no longer need and students who need them can help each other out by bartering or buying and selling.”
  • Sell textbooks online. “Two college students at Notre Dame noticed that many students discarded their textbooks when they left for the summer. Kreece and Xavier began to collect the books and sell them on the Internet. Six months later they had raised $10,000 by selling donated textbooks. This gave them the idea to start their business Better World Books to keep old textbooks out of the landfills [and now] have a booming business. They are still purchasing old textbooks and have sold over 75 million.”
  • Share textbooks. “Sharing a textbook with another student in the same course can save 50 percent of the cost of the book, but it usually does not turn out well if the students are taking the course during the same semester. Both students are apt to want and need the textbook at the same times to study for the same tests; however, if one student takes the course first and the other student schedules the course for the following semester it will be a win-win.”


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.