Why College Textbooks are so Expensive and How to Avoid Overpaying for Them


Just like college tuition, the price of textbooks has increased dramatically in recent years. What's the cause of this inflation, and what can you do to keep costs down when purchasing these books?

The Cost of Textbooks

It's no secret that college tuition has skyrocketed in recent years, but the yearly cost of attending isn't the only thing that's increased. Once you've covered the price of admission and made it onto campus, you'll also need to pay for your textbooks. While this may seem like a minor expense, some books can set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars! The National Association of College Stores reports that the average student spends $662 annually on course materials.

college books

If you think this sounds like a lot to pay for a few books, you're not alone. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get around paying these exorbitant costs. With just a little bit of research and some helpful guidance from the sources below, you can navigate the college textbook marketplace and save yourself a significant chunk of money.

Understanding the Rise in Cost

First and foremost, it's important to understand why textbooks are so expensive. What's going on that makes them worth so much?

Publisher Profits

Not surprisingly, the primary motivation behind the rise in price is directly related to the desire for more money. Publishers take in a significant percentage of the profits from textbook sales, so a higher sticker price means a better bottom line for them.

With so few textbook publishers in business, the lack of competition makes for a less competitive market. Companies can get away with charging higher prices because there are no smaller, independent companies that can jump in and offer a better price.

cost of education

Additionally, college students make for an essentially captive audience; books are required materials, so they must purchase them. Publishers know that they can raise the price without worrying about losing sales to competitors, and they take full advantage of this strategy.

Professor Choice

In many cases, professors are often unaware of (or indifferent to) the cost of the books they assign. Rather than choosing the most cost-effective books, they simply choose the ones they prefer to use when teaching.

In other cases, you might take a course taught by a professor who assigns his or her own book as reading material, either out of vanity or a desire to bump up personal sales.

New Editions

Especially in the medical and scientific fields, where information and best practices are constantly changing, textbooks are frequently rewritten and updated to better reflect contemporary knowledge. While it is important to keep textbooks up to date, this practice also forces students to buy the newest editions of books and gives publishers an excuse to charge more.

Nora Smith, a recent graduate of Case Western Reserve University's nursing program, noted the difference in cost from one year to the next. ''My junior year, we used an older edition, but this past semester my teacher assigned a newer version and I had no choice but to spend an extra $200.''

Software Bundles

To further their profits, publishers will often bundle textbooks with CDs or other forms of software. Despite adding little to the overall product value, these add-ons provide another excuse to charge a higher price.

tablet on shelf

Paying Less for Your Books

After what you've just read, you may be feeling a little hopeless about your chances of saving money when it comes time to buy your textbooks. Luckily for you, however, plenty of your fellow academics have noticed this troubling trend and have already assembled a resistance devoted to providing the same textbooks at a much friendlier price.

Rent Your Books

While college stores usually buy back textbooks, they've recently taken new steps to simplify the process and keep costs down. Rather than purchasing and then reselling their books, most college bookstores allow students to rent books.

''Rental books are a great resource,'' says Vickie Englert, a junior at Stevenson University. ''Buying books new seems like a waste of money, especially when I know I'm just going to return them at the end of the semester.''

This practice works exactly how you might imagine. Renting grants you access to a book for a semester, with a hard deadline to return it after finals have concluded. The price of a rental is generally far less than the cost of a purchased book.

Explore the Second-Hand Market

Buying something used is always going to be cheaper than buying it new, and college textbooks are no exception. Multiple sites, such as Chegg and Amazon, allow students to search for and purchase used textbooks that are typically sold for less than half of the original sticker price.

These sites also allow you to sell your own books, so if you have old materials lying around, this is your chance to finally unload them and make some money.

Find Free Books

In some places, books are offered completely free of charge. Project Gutenberg, Open Book Project, and the Online Books Page are just a few examples of sites where thousands of college textbooks can be found at no cost.

While these sites provide a valuable service, their selection is not quite as extensive as the other sites mentioned in this article. While it's certainly worth a shot to investigate them and see if you can find what you need, you shouldn't count on these sites as your only sources for textbooks.


The price of college textbooks may have increased astronomically, but that doesn't mean you need to pay full price for these materials. If you do your research and look hard enough, it's not hard to find good deals on quality materials.

By Bill Sands
December 2017
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