Books: Colleges' Budget-Busters

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, July 13, 2006; D02

Thomas Jefferson said that "books constitute capital."

Well, the thousands of students who will soon head off to college campuses across the country know all too well that it takes quite a bit of capital these days to buy textbooks.

A Government Accountability Office report found that in the past two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation. In academic year 2003-04, students and their families spent more than $6 billion on new and used textbooks.

According to the GAO, the average estimated cost of books and supplies for a first-time, full-time student in 2003-04 was $898 at four-year public institutions. That was about 26 percent as much as the cost of tuition and fees.

At two-year public institutions, where low-income students are more likely to pursue a degree program and tuition and fees are lower, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student was $886, almost three-quarters the amount of tuition and fees, according to the GAO report.

It's not unusual for one textbook to cost more than $100. That, folks, is not chump change when you consider that so many students are already borrowing heavily to attend college.

The state Public Interest Research Groups criticized the rising cost of textbooks in a report called "Rip-Off 101: How the Publishing Industry's Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs." The nonprofit advocacy groups found that, on average, the most widely purchased textbooks on college campuses have new editions published every three years. A new edition usually costs 45 percent more than a used copy of the previous edition.

The reports by the PIRGs and the GAO concluded that many factors affect textbook pricing, including the addition of "bundled" features such as CD-ROMs and workbooks shrink-wrapped together.

Publishers say the additional book features are what professors want.

Many state legislatures are considering legislation or have passed laws to help students combat the rising price of textbooks.

In Connecticut, for example, publishers are required to provide pricing information to faculty members before the professors put in an order. The idea is to make educators more aware of what the final cost will be to students.

Silly me; I would have thought faculty would pay close attention to what students have to pay for their books.

Anyway, while various organizations and campaigns such as work on the policy front to lower the cost of textbooks, there are some things students can do now to reduce the capital they spend.

For instance, the California Public Interest Research Group recommends buying online at such sites as , which allows students to buy and sell used books directly from each other. The site is free, but registration is required.

Try these sites as well: , and . But when buying online, don't forget to consider shipping expenses.

Before you buy your book, double-check that you have the correct 10-digit International Standard Book Number, or ISBN. Look for it above the bar code on the textbook's back cover or title page. If you are checking your class syllabus online, it should contain the ISBN along with the book title, author and edition.

If you're really bold and struggling financially, there may be a way to use an old edition of a textbook. However, it'll take some work.

First, check with the professor to see if the new edition of the textbook being used for the course has substantial changes, CALPIRG recommends. If there aren't many changes, then look online (or ask the faculty member) for an old syllabus.


Because a new edition of the textbook often means new page numbers, and that in turn means the professor has to create a new syllabus. But if you can get your hands on an old syllabus with the old page numbers, you may be able to get away with using a previous edition of the book and save some money.

Used textbooks are typically priced at 75 percent of the retail price of the new book. Prices on used books are $10 to $80, with the average price about $40, according to the National Association of College Stores.

Also think international, says Steve Loyola, president and founder of Best Book Buys, an online price-comparison shopping site for college students.

"Often the publisher makes an international version that is identical to the U.S counterpart except it might be a paperback instead of a hardback and the content is supposed to be the same," Loyola said.

Buying international versions of textbooks could save in some cases up to 90 percent of the U.S. retail price. To find international textbooks, you can go to or .

Most important before heading back to school, find out what books you have to buy, Loyola suggests. Many college bookstores post the required textbooks online for each course. You need to shop early so you'll have a chance to buy used books, which often sell out fast once classes start.

When it comes to shopping for college books, this is a textbook case of the early bird getting the bargain.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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