Boston College Law School library in Newton, Massachusetts.

IF you are a college student in the United States, or plan on furthering your studies in a country with similar cost of living, you will know that textbooks are absurdly expensive.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an 812 per cent rise in the cost of course materials between 1978 and 2012 as published by the American Enterprise Institute. Coupled with the rising cost of college tuition across the board, this can be troubling to many students who want to chase their dreams. The non-profit organisation, College Board, reports an average cost of US$24,610 (RM104,380) per academic year for in-state public colleges and US$49,320 per academic year for private colleges in the United States — neither figures include room and board or college textbooks.

An article published by the International Council for Open and Distance Education stated: “The cost of textbooks has continued to impact students in higher education. Students have reported that they make decisions on which courses to take based on the specific cost of textbooks.”

Since the cost of college tuition is not within the realm of possibility for control, at least for the moment, and to write about lodging will require another article, I will concentrate on the cost of college textbooks.

There are several ways to work around the cost, with effort by a student. The first and most obvious method of negating steep price tags is to buy used textbooks. Sometimes the university may sell used textbooks in its bookstores or those around the campus will carry them.

Sometimes you even have the option to rent the book for the semester and save even more money. However, do keep in mind that these physical bookstores tend to charge a little more than what you would expect a used textbook to be priced.

A better option is to look up online stores (near where you live) for second-hand college textbooks.

If you study in the US, United Kingdom or Japan, the Internet-based retailer Amazon is a good resource for second-hand college textbooks and it, too, sometimes provides textbooks for rental. There are many online stores which rent out college textbooks and allows you to cross-search for the cheapest price of a textbook.

Alternatively, eliminate the middleman and buy books from your peers. This is often a win-win situation for both parties and not only will you be able to negotiate a significant discount, the seller will likely get a lot more money than from a bookstore.

The next method is to buy previous editions of the textbook. Updated editions of textbooks are essentially mostly old content that is rearranged and only minutely updated. The Student Public Interest Research Groups released a report in 2004 detailing the practices of the publishing industry that drive up the cost of college textbooks. The report found that a new copy of a college textbook can sell for US$130 compared to the previous edition of the same book that is sold at between US$20 and US$90.

Publishers seem to be able to get away with this tactic because they rely on students being worried that the new edition has new material that makes it substantially different and will affect the material for their examinations.

If you go back far enough into textbook editions, the content differs widely, so the safest bet is to go back one or two editions. Do check with your professors first before you take this route, it is likely they’ll suggest which previous editions are safe to purchase.

Another option worth considering in your quest to save money is to borrow the textbooks from a library. Check the public libraries in your city and even your university library catalogue for the textbook required. Especially for places that consider themselves college towns, it is very likely that you’ll find more than one copy of the textbook tucked away on a shelf.

Classes that have a larger number of students mean a higher chance of a donation of textbooks to the library, given the paltry sum when a book is resold to bookstores.

On that note, you may want to consider paying it forward and donating your textbook to a library after you’re done with it as well. Higher education students have to help each other out. The best part of this option is that short of library membership fees, which is free most of the time, you won’t be paying anything for that textbook. If you’re worried about the length of time you are allowed to borrow a textbook, most libraries allow you to extend the period indefinitely if no one else requests for the book.

Some textbooks come with e-textbook counterparts that are much cheaper than the physical copies and have no difference in content, and are environmentally-friendly too! As almost every student has either a tablet or laptop, this option will lighten the physical load that needs to be carried to classes. It also eliminates the worry of forgetting to bring a textbook to class.

Sometimes, professors will only use parts of a textbook instead of the entire book or the textbook is listed in the syllabus because the university encourages them to include it. This means there is a possibility that the listed textbook will not be used in class and you can get by just fine by studying the topic in libraries and reading material from elsewhere. But there are a few things to note before you assume this is to be the case. Once you have signed up for your classes, you are notified of the lecturer in charge. Send an email asking whether the textbooks will be of importance or just certain parts. In the case of the latter, you may photocopy the necessary parts if there is no violation of copyrights.

At the end of the day, unless new laws are passed and policies put in place to prevent publishers from doing as they please, college textbook prices will continue to be expensive. I do hope tertiary institutions will take steps to mitigate this issue such as encouraging the use of open-textbooks in class. Perhaps students can suggest this to the professors as well. Until then, stay frugal and study smart.

Emillio Daniel is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at

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