Thursday, September 04, 2014

Textbooks and Rising College Costs

With summer over, it is back to school for the thousands of students enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities.

For most students and/or their parents, a college education is an expensive undertaking.  In addition to tuition and room and board, books and supplies will consume a large portion of a student’s education budget.

Despite steadily rising book costs, textbook publishers have found themselves squeezed for revenue.  A major source of revenue loss can be attributed to the burgeoning used textbook market.
The used textbook market has always existed but, prior to the rise of the world wide web and sites like eBay, it was not too big of a  threat as the market for used textbooks was limited to students in the next semester’s or year’s courses.  Since many localities had only one college or university options to buy or sell used textbooks was limited.

Despite the limited re-sale market, publishers were able to narrow the market further by regularly coming out with new editions of books.  Generally this just involved a few changes (such as reversing the order of chapters, adding or replacing some content, etc), and then convincing professors to adapt the new addition for their next semester’s courses.

However, with the rise of auction and resale sites like eBay, Amazon,, etc. the market suddenly became global and textbook publishers found themselves competing for business against students selling used copies of the same textbooks the publishers were selling new.

It wasn’t just individual students logging on to sites where they could sell their used textbooks at the end of the term.  Other entrepreneurs, including entrepreneurial students, began purchasing used books directly from students and then re-selling them online at a higher price.  Some even went so far as to negotiate with the local college bookstore to purchase unsold new books that were not going to be used the next term.  This saved the bookstore the cost of shipping the books back to the publisher.  

Publishers struck back by going digital themselves.  This took the form of developing digital content, including robust content and tests (thus saving professors from having to hand out, monitor and correct tests) designed to aid in the teaching and learning.  This content required the student to purchase an access code that allowed them to enter the online site.  The pass code was good for the semester and initially only available with the purchase of a book and pass code package.

The addition of online content available via a pass code not only produced an additional revenue stream from the sale of pass codes, but, packaging the code with the textbook forced students to purchase their books new (since pass codes cannot be re-used, students could not re-sell them).  This was a blow to the used book market as students had to purchase new books in order to get the pass code for the online access which many professors required as a part of the course.

The threat of new laws or regulations on the textbook industry has resulted in many publishers offering the option of purchasing the textbook and access code separately.  This allows students to purchase the access code alone and then purchase a used textbook or, in some cases, rent a textbook.  
Purchasing the access code separately from the book offers the potential for savings.  However, it pays to shop around.  The college bookstore may sell the access code separately and also offer both new and used copies of the textbook as well as various bundling options.

However, the publisher may also sell access codes directly from their websites and prices might differ from those at bookstores.  Also, used copies of the textbook may be less expensive from an online seller than from the bookstore.  Ebooks are also an option that are usually less expensive than print books and there are some eBook and access code packages which could result in a savings.

Finally, many college bookstores offer a textbook rental option that may be a less expensive alternative to purchasing a used textbook. also offers textbook rental options and this may be more of a savings than the bookstore offers.

College is expensive and textbooks are a big part of this expense.  However, investing some time checking all options can result in a significant savings in this area.  

Finally, in making your decisions on how to go about keeping your textbook costs down keep in mind that purchasing a new or used print edition gives you the possibility of getting some of your money back at the end of the term by selling the textbook.  This, of course, cannot be done with rental books or with most eBooks.

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