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Skip the Campus Bookstore: New Sources for Student Textbooks

If you're a college student looking to get the lowest prices on textbooks, your campus bookstore might not be doing you any favors. If you can't find good deals on campus, where else can you turn?

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By Eric Garneau

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Campus Bookstores - A Failing Model?

Over the past few years, news media has been rife with stories about campus bookstores desperately looking to adopt any business model or product that can generate more revenue. In November 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that some campus stores were trying tactics like installing flu shot clinics or adding a performance space for student artists. A January 2011 American Public Media report stated that at the University of California, San Diego bookstore students can buy surfing gear. These are the actions of retail outlets determined to stay relevant in a changing print marketplace.

And why shouldn't they take such actions? A proliferation of options for purchasing textbooks over the last decade has left many campus stores in the lurch, due in no small part to their unforgiving pricing. 'Retail value' is something of a dirty word in an era when people are so used to hunting for discounts, and your campus bookstore likely isn't ready to deliver those.

Of course campus bookstores have to deal with the same difficulties as other retail shops - overhead, personnel requirements, unsold merchandise and the like. On the other hand, they have an army of potential customers every year waiting to buy their wares - that's more than many businesses can hope for. But if they're not providing students the books they need, who is?

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Alternatives Both Physical and Digital

Hard Copies

Online retailers like Amazon.com and Half.com have seriously cut into campus bookstores' market in the past decade or so. Of course, campus bookstores aren't alone there; many brick-and-mortar retailers have been hit by online megastores that offer deep discounts and a seemingly unbelievable selection. But for cash-strapped students more than many other groups, the siren's song of such retailers may hold an inescapable pull.

So let's see how traditional and online retailers actually compare. Thanks to the University of Kansas' forward-thinking bookstore, comparison-shopping for course textbooks is easy. In addition to listing its own pricing, the bookstore's website offers links to purchase items from online competitors, so we can get a real sense of price difference. Bookstore director Estella McCollum told The Chronicle that 80% of the students who use the comparison pricing tool come buy the book at her store, but let's see if that's financially in their best interest (please note: for brevity/sanity only new book prices were considered. Campus bookstores, Amazon and other retailers offer a myriad of used book options as well). The textbooks featured below were taken from popular introductory-level classes at the University of Kansas; these are likely textbooks in use in numerous schools across the country.

Course: Biology 150 (Molecular and Cellular Biology)

  • Book: Biology with MasteringBiology
  • Campus bookstore price (new): $202.65
  • Amazon price (new): $109.94
  • Amazon savings: 46%

Course: Chemistry 150 (Chemistry for Engineers)

  • Book: Chemistry for Engineering Students
  • Campus bookstore price (new): $217.67
  • Amazon price (new): $173.99
  • Amazon savings: 21%

Course: Math 103 (Trigonometry)

  • Book: Trigonometry: A Right Triangle Approach
  • Campus bookstore price (new): $147.33
  • Amazon price (new): $63.99
  • Amazon savings: 57%

Course: Physics 111 (Introductory Physics)

  • Book: Physics and Technology for Future Presidents
  • Campus bookstore price (new): $49.50
  • Amazon price (new): $32.60
  • Amazon savings: 35%

Course: Psychology 104 (Introductory Psychology)

  • Book: Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding
  • Campus bookstore price (new): $147.50
  • Amazon price (new): $113.99
  • Amazon savings: 23%

In every case, then, students stand to save by not buying at their local campus bookstore. Of course, savings of 21% or 23% may not be worth giving up the immediate access granted by an on-campus institution, but when you're talking a price difference of around $100, it becomes harder to justify shopping on-campus.

E-Books

There's another option for cheaper textbooks out there that online retailers as well as some campus stores have started to embrace - electronic texts. Though e-books perhaps have some downsides (like licenses that expire or possible dependence on Internet connectivity), they're often a good deal cheaper than physical textbooks, not to mention lighter-weight and easier to store!

Unfortunately, when it comes to e-books students are at the mercy of their availability. Of the five books profiled above, only two are available in electronic formats - Physics and Technology for Future Presidents and Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding. While both come at a substantial discount from retail price (41% and 30%, respectively), they only represent 40% of our hypothetical student's books. On the plus side, public interest group Student PIRGs reports that e-textbooks are in general 40%-50% cheaper than their in-print counterparts, which can produce substantial savings if they are available.

Don't Forget the Bookstore So Quickly

All that said, we shouldn't count out on-campus stores yet. Recently another alternative to flat-out purchasing textbooks has become available - renting them. Institutionalized textbook rental has grown in popularity in the past few years, with websites like BookRenter leading the charge. Further, according to The Chronicle 11 college bookstores received nine million dollars in federal grants at the end of 2010 to try out rental programs themselves.

One such store, perhaps unsurprisingly, belongs to our friends at the University of Kansas. And if we again look at the five textbooks selected above, we can see that the school offers both 90- and 125-day rentals on all of them. If we err on the safe side and pony up enough cash to rent each book for 125 days (to cover a full fall/spring semester), how much would we pay?

  • Biology with MasteringBiology: $62.96 (69% savings off retail)
  • Chemistry for Engineering Students: $61.50 (72% savings off retail)
  • Trigonometry: A Right Triangle Approach: $40.58 (73% savings off retail)
  • Physics and Technology for Future Presidents: $17.36 (65% savings off retail)
  • Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding: $47.81 (68% savings off retail)

So if you're a student who doesn't really care about holding onto your books after you're done with them, it seems rental might be the way to go. And while only a few campus bookstores around the country officially support such a program at the moment, it's likely that if it works in one location others will attempt to ape its success. So let's not be unduly harsh toward our friends in campus retail. If nothing else, you know where you can go if you urgently need a flu shot.

You probably won't find many comic books at your campus bookstore, but maybe you should.

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