How to save money when shopping for college textbooks

By Marcy Robles Features Consumer Reports

College textbooks. For students like me, they're a necessary, expensive evil. College students estimated they spent about $638 on textbooks and other required materials for the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores. The College Board says that the amount a student spent on books and supplies in the 2013-2014 academic year was about $1,200. And, according to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report, college textbook prices are increasing at a rate three times faster than inflation.

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What can you do to save money? 

Well, you may decide to buy the overpriced textbook and use it for a semester. Once you’re done, you may be able to to sell it back to a bookstore. Or maybe you buy it used in the first place.
Some students, though, choose not to buy the textbook and hope to get by without it. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 65 percent of students decide not to buy a textbook due to its high price. I can understand why, because the cost of college tuition is enough of an expense. The survey found that 94 percent of students who don’t get their textbooks worry that they will suffer academically.
The good news, I’m here to report, is that you  can find textbooks at a decent price, so you don't have to put academic success behind financial concerns. In early July, I set out to compare prices among several online textbook vendors. In this report, I'll discuss alternatives to buying new and used textbooks: renting print versions, purchasing e-textbooks, and other unique options.

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I began my small study by choosing five textbooks from a list of the top 10 most popular textbooks for fall 2013 compiled by This includes "Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials" (8th Ed.) by Diana Kendall, "Survey of Mathematics with Applications: Expanded Edition" (8th Ed.) by Allen R. Angel, "Conceptual Chemistry" (4th Ed.) by John A. Suchocki, "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" 2nd Printing (6th Ed.) by the American Psychological Association, and "Human Geography in Action" (5th Ed.) by Michael Kuby.

I then chose five textbook vendors: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookbyte, Chegg, and TextbookRush. On those sites, I searched and compared the costs to buy the five books in new and used print versions, to rent them, purchase e-textbook formats, and other options. I also researched how much it cost to buy each textbook directly from the publisher.

Learn where to get the best prices on used college textbooks and check our back-to-school shopping guide.

Even though all the textbooks in our study come in e-book versions, the textbooks were, with two exceptions, available for rental from the vendors in print format only, not as e-textbooks. That was aggravating. I think today’s generation is so connected digitally that it has become accustomed to getting what it needs in the time it takes to do a download.

Chegg and Barnes & Noble had all the titles available to rent in physical format only (although Chegg did offer a free e-textbook version of one title for seven days while the print book was being shipped). Unlike the other three vendors, both had all titles in stock. Chegg had lower rental rates than Barnes & Noble on all five titles, based on a per-day rental cost.
The drawback: Chegg has limited rental options. But Chegg rents the book for the semester and will extend 30 days past the due date free. In contrast, Barnes & Noble offers rentals for 60 days, 90 days, or 130 days; price is determined by the time period. And at the end of your rental period, Barnes & Noble gives you the option to extend by 15, 30, 45, 60, 90, or 125 days—for a fee—or to purchase your rental.
Bottom line: For rentals, focus on Chegg and Barnes & Noble. But consider flexibility. The bargain may outweigh the service—or vice versa—depending on your circumstances.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. students conducted by Bookboon, an online book publishing company, 57.8 percent prefer digital textbooks over the printed versions. So it was a shock to me to find that four of the five sellers had none of the five titles available for rental in e-textbook format. Amazon was the only seller with an e-textbook available for rent. And that was for just one of the titles. 

As I mentioned, for one of the textbooks, Chegg offered a complimentary e-textbook for seven days while you wait for your rental print textbook to arrive. But it didn't offer to sell or rent the e-textbook.
Bottom line: You may have luck buying from Amazon, or directly from the publisher. 

`Don’t forget to search for textbooks directly from the publisher. I found that some publishers conveniently offered textbooks in a variety of formats. Wiley & Sons, for example, provided a loose-leaf version of "Human Geography in Action" so students could insert it into a binder. Such a choice can be less heavy to carry than the regular textbook.

You may be able to buy just one section or chapter of a book. For example, the publisher Cengage Learning offered sections of "Sociology in Our Times: Essentials" for $5.99 each. That could be appealing to many, considering some professors teach by sections or chapters and leave the rest of the textbook untouched.
Bottom line: Always include the publishers in your search for textbooks. Sometimes they may offer better deals and prices that are less than that of the seller.
—Marcy Robles

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