Your professors will probably be podcasting, and you may listen on your iPhone while reading a novel and checking Facebook. But one mode of information exchange on campus has remained a constant: the expensive textbook.
The average full-time student spent nearly $700 on course materials in the 2009-2010 academic year, calculates the National Association of College Stores. And textbook prices are rising at about four times the rate of inflation, says Nicole Allen, the affordable-textbooks advocate at the Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), a national federation of state nonprofits.
But the tide may be turning. During the spring 2010 semester, students spent 13 percent less on textbooks than in spring 2009, thanks to growing competition in the textbook marketplace and the mushrooming availability of rental texts, e-books, and even online "open textbooks" that professors can customize and students can download and print for free. A new federal law requires schools to list textbook ISBNs online to allow for comparison shopping and enough time for the books to arrive from an e-tailer.
[Read about 4 ways to get textbooks for free.]
Students who buy may recoup some of their cost by reselling texts on Craigslist, Facebook, or Amazon, or schlepping them back to the bookstore. But all of this takes effort, and you may get only a few dollars if a new edition is out.
Renting will generally be the least expensive option, says Allen. (At one popular website, the $155 Molecular Biology of the Cell was recently going for $69.74 used and $59.49 as a rental.) More than half of college bookstores have set up a rental program. But not all books are available for rental, and you won't be able to go crazy with your highlighter.
A drawback of e-books is that you can print only 30 percent of the text. The electronic version can run as much as 60 percent lower in cost—even cheaper if you're just buying chapters you need. But that's no bargain if you also end up buying a hard copy out of frustration. For a test drive, you can download one of 12,000 e-books for seven days from textbook wholesaler Follett at CafeScribe.com.
[Learn more about digital textbook services.]
More than 50 websites have sprouted up to help you compare prices and buy, rent, or sell books cheap, with new ones launching all the time. Some of the biggest players:
BigWords.com: Type in a book's name or author and up pops a list of the cheapest options, with shipping costs listed separately. The site lets you filter out third-party sellers if you don't want to accept the risk of, say, relying on a random person to get you your book pronto.
CampusBooks.com: Allows you to buy, rent, and sell textbooks, to and from other students. A price comparison engine compares the cost of renting and buying.
CengageBrain.com: Launched by Cengage Learning, one of the country's largest textbook publishers, this site lets students buy only the book chapters they need as an e-book. It also rents (by summer, quarter, or semester) and sells.
Chegg.com: The name comes from a mashup of "chicken" and "egg," and the concept is that you rent books for as little as 15 percent of the original price. You can also buy books and sell them back for cash or credit.
eCampus.com: Rent, buy, and sell textbooks or download electronic versions. Free shipping is available on purchases of more than $59.
FlatWorldKnowledge.com: This is an open license model start-up that allows professors to edit textbooks to fit their course needs and students to get the book online for free. Other formats, such as print and e-book, are available for a price.
Half.com: Powered by eBay, this website is a portal where sellers list and buyers pay according to the condition of the textbooks.
Textbooks.com: Given the inventory of more than 7 million books, chances are you'll find what you need here. In addition to renting, buying, and selling, this website carries e-books. Shipping is free on purchases over $25.
ValoreBooks.com: Buy, sell, or rent. The site promises to match any lower rental prices found elsewhere within seven days of your deal.
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