Book costs take a bite out of students' budgets

Andrew Favreau
“Most people don’t think about it, but the cost of textbooks is huge," says Andrew Favreau, a part-time MBA student at DePaul University.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like many college students, Andrew Favreau finds shopping for textbooks to be a challenge.

“Most people don’t think about it, but the cost of textbooks is huge,” said Favreau, 26, who is studying part-time for a master’s in business administration at DePaul University in Chicago.

While most families factor rising costs for tuition and room and board into their college budgets, they often overlook the increasingly hefty bill for books. The College Board, which tracks college pricing trends, estimates that students spend about $940 a year on books and supplies.

To hold costs down, students who once shopped for texts only at the campus bookstore are casting wider nets, searching for new and used textbooks at online bookstores, seeking out student book exchanges, investing in e-books, sharing books with fellow students — even borrowing books from public libraries.

Favreau, who works in marketing and public relations, said he’s been willing to invest in some business school textbooks “because I’ll likely revisit them or use them during the course of my career.”

He said he’s saved money by buying used texts at, eBay Inc.’s and other online booksellers. He’s also turned to the Internet to resell the books he doesn’t want to keep — and, he said, got more cash than he would have selling through a campus or local bookstore.

Last semester, for example, he needed a book on information systems management that retails for about $150 new. He bought it used online for $84.99 and resold it for $59.99. currently sells used editions of the book for $73.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education with the New York-based Association of American Publishers, said that textbooks are more expensive than other books in part because most have small press runs.

“An absolute best-seller — and there are few — would sell 40,000 editions a year,” he said.

At the same time, some textbooks are “incredibly expensive to produce,” especially math and science texts that require frequent revisions. Hildebrand also pointed out that it is professors who decide which textbooks they want their students to use — and that they often have a lot of options.

“Take introductory psychology, a very popular course,” Hildebrand said. “There are currently 216 different introductory psychology books on sale, and prices at retail range from $22.50 to $125.”

Still, he said, publishers were trying to respond to calls for lower-cost texts, producing some in black-and-white instead of color, offering split texts — half now, half later — for some courses, even customizing compilations for some professors.

Jennifer Libertowski, spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores, a trade group of campus bookstores based in Oberlin, Ohio, said that a recent study found that students were buying about a quarter of their textbooks online, with the bulk still from bookstores.

Students still worry that books ordered from the Internet won’t arrive ahead of the start of school, she said. But a bigger reason to buy from a brick-and-mortar store is that if a student drops a course, “the local store will take the books back, with a receipt of course.”

Libertowski said that a major contributor to cost was the so-called “bundling” of scholastic material — a textbook plus a study guide, a CD, a passcode to a Web site. This trend, however, can cut into the resale value, because some bookstores may be hesitant to take the textbook back if they can’t replace the other materials separately, she said.

Some students also are shopping for textbooks on price comparison sites such as, which is operated by Best Web Buys of LaCanada, Calif. Sugi Sorensen, vice president of engineering, said that shoppers can “get prices from the 23 stores we search.” Among the offerings are lower-cost, overseas editions, he said.

Heidi O’Connor, 20, who will be a senior this fall at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, said it wasn’t unusual for undergraduates to spend $1,000 a year for books, “and for my friends in law school and medical school, it’s even worse.”

While she does shop at the campus bookstore and local bookstores, she and her friends also use “as many channels as possible,” including the marketplace section of the social networking sites Facebook and

“What really gets students angry is the buyback problem,” O’Connor said. Campus bookstores often will buy back books for just pennies on the dollar, especially if they’re not sure the text is going to be used in subsequent semesters.

Her advice to incoming freshmen: “Hammer out your classes, then be a pest if you have to figure out what books you need. E-mail the professor to make sure. It’s your education; you’re paying for it.”

With more time, O’Connor said, students have a better chance of getting lower-cost texts.

“The earlier you can buy, the better, because the inventory of used books tends to go pretty fast,” she said. “Or if you want to order online, you have time for the books to get there.”