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How Your Professor Can Save You From Credit Card Debt

According to a 2010 posting from the public interest group Student PIRGs, college students spend an average of $900 on textbooks annually. Depending on where you go to school, that amount could represent anything from an additional financial nuisance to about half of your tuition bill. And although things have recently gotten a little better for the textbook-buying public, students still struggle. But they may have a strong, unsuspected ally in the fight to keep prices down: their teachers.

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By Eric Garneau

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Recent Developments in Textbook Pricing

Like many businessmen, textbook publishers are a sneaky lot. For years, they would pitch their books to professors without mentioning how much they cost, bundle books with almost-useless multimedia supplements to increase the price and update texts every few years seemingly on a whim, forcing classes of students to buy all new editions instead of purchasing cheaper, used copies.

You know things are bad when the federal government gets involved. Provisions in 2008's Higher Education Opportunity Act (which went into effect in 2010) required textbook publishers to alter many of their questionable ways, including making them disclose the full costs of books when attempting to sell them to educators, as well as to unbundle any multimedia inclusions so students had the option of purchasing book-only versions. But although the textbook industry has been forced into more transparency, student spending on books hasn't really dropped between 2006 and 2010 - perhaps schools' ability to choose cheaper texts has been offset by natural inflation, especially in a bad economy. So how can we better fight the cost of textbooks?

Act Locally, Think Digitally

Just as your professors now have the ability to choose the most affordable traditional textbook option they can for their classes, they also have the power to think outside the box when it comes to their books. For instance, they might consider going the digital textbook route through providers like Flat World Knowledge, which offers discounted print-on-demand textbooks in over 50 courses, as well as free online texts for students who don't mind reading on a computer monitor or tablet PC.

Even if professors don't want to adopt digital textbooks completely, they could make a conscious choice to use books that have e-reader/digital versions available on popular websites like Amazon.com. For instance, we might consider a popular introductory chemistry textbook, simply titled Chemistry by Steven Zumdahl. Amazon lists the retail price of the book as $260.95 - and that's what you're likely to pay at a campus bookstore, given that college campuses generate revenue from the profit of sales there. Amazon hosts a Kindle version of that same book for $167.16, a 38% savings off retail, and even 13% less than Amazon's discounted price.

Serious Results

Professors who opt to go with open textbooks - or even textbooks with digital versions - can make a significant impact both on their students' minds and wallets. Student PIRGs notes that electronic textbooks combined with rentals (such as those available from Chegg.com and BookRenter) could save students 34% a year, while totally open textbooks could cut costs by as much as 80%. If you apply that to our initial starting number of $900, you'd get a year of textbooks for $180, or about the cost of one electronic version of Steven Zumdahl's Chemistry. How's that for savings?

So students, what can you do? Talk to your professors. Tell them you'd like more and cheaper options. If they don't already know about open textbooks, show them around sites like FlatWorldKnowledge.org. Student PIRGs found that when professors had price data available to them, they tried to make choices that would benefit their students financially. Who's to say they won't continue to behave that way when looking at free or reduced-price materials?

Why exactly do textbooks cost so much?

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