Saving Money on Textbooks

Stack of books on a wooden desk
Photo by Morgan Harper Nichols via Unsplash

College and grad school are expensive. Tuition at private colleges jumped 129% in the last 30 years, outpacing inflation. Public college rates more than tripled in that time. Add to that living expenses, fees and the not-inconsiderable cost of textbooks, and higher education is a major investment.

There are ways to offset some of the costs. You can live at home and earn scholarships and fellowships.

And you can save on textbooks. A lot.

Fighting Back Against Skyrocketing Costs
In the 38 years between 1977 and 2015, textbook prices skyrocketed 11 fold, nearly three times the rate of inflation. For years, students were a captive audience for booksellers. The College Board estimates that the average student will spend more than $1,200 on textbooks this year.

Ilze Astad emigrated from Latvia and enrolled at College of Charleston in the early 2000s. She couldn’t afford textbooks, “so I would go to the library and check them out and extend, extend, and when I could no longer keep them I made copies,” she said. “Or I borrowed books from classmates and made copies. The copy cost usually amounted to 10% of the textbook cost.”

Today, that isn’t necessary (or legal). The Internet has provided an accessible online marketplace for people to exchange books. Just a small investment in time allows students to buy books at significant discounts – 50%-90% off list price.

Armed with the title of the book you need, the author(s) and the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), a student can search any one of literally dozens of online sites for deeply discounted books. Most sites waive shipping costs for orders over a nominal amount, sport return policies, and offer buy-back services.

If you’re not sure where to start, there are even textbook sales aggregators:,, and rates Amazon the best site for purchasing textbooks, followed closely by,,, and Amazon’s main advantage is the vastness of its marketplace.

Another Option: Rent Your Book
Another option, for those textbooks that are unlikely candidates for the personal library, is to rent, often for prices lower than buying and selling back. Although Amazon is rated far and away from the top site for rentals by College Investor, it comes with a daunting set of conditions. For example, if you highlight excessively, they will charge you the full purchase price, and failure to return the book expeditiously conveys steep penalties.

If those conditions are non-starters for you, Campus Book Rentals and eCampus both received high marks from College Investor. Campus Book Rentals is unique in offering online support, free shipping and no limit on highlighting. eCampus charges shipping on orders under $35, but its rental terms are unusually flexible.

“I used Chegg when I attended CofC and my wallet swooned,” said Kate Tulloch-Hammond, a 2011 College of Charleston graduate. “A textbook in the $70s-$80s, I could rent for a semester for $18-$25ish. I couldn’t understand why everybody wasn’t using it.”

A Few Other Choices
There are other options as well. Textbooks publishers like to publish new editions as often as possible in hopes of making older books obsolete. In many cases, though, the new edition is a distinction without much difference from the previous edition. In those cases, buying an older edition at a fraction of the original cost might be an option. It’s wise to check with the professor before embarking on this strategy.

In fact, it’s possible the professor has an extra copy of the textbook they can lend to the first student who asks. Book publishers often provide professors with complimentary copies for placing an order. Borrowing the book provides a 100% saving.

Many textbooks are now printed in digital editions at a fraction of the cost. Bill Celis, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, says he encourages his students to go that route.

Your School Can Help
Armed with the knowledge that two-thirds of students opt counter-productively not to buy textbooks at some point due to cost, many school libraries have made affordability a priority. The Partnership Among South Carolina Libraries (PASCAL) has launched an initiative promoting the use of quality low-cost and no-cost learning materials.

Using a tool in OAKS, faculty at the College of Charleston have the ability to make specific, course-related library material – online articles, e-books, streaming video, etc. – available to students through a direct link in the learning management system. This initiative is in its infancy and requires the cooperation of professors, who have not yet discovered its value in large numbers.  

CofC libraries have launched Open Educational Resources – access to textbooks in a variety of subjects. At this early stage, the program covers just 17 of the school’s 61 undergraduate majors and minors. Burton Callicott, Head of Research and Instruction at CofC Libraries, expects it to gain traction and provide significantly greater value in the next few years. He encourages students to voice their support for more textbook resources to their school.