International students studying in U.S. universities often face many challenges. Although their experiences vary tremendously, one thing that these students almost universally find shocking is the price of textbooks in the U.S.
Their shock is entirely justified. The College Board (n.d.) estimates that students at American universities spend an average of around $1000 on books and supplies each year, and some universities ask students to budget even more than that. For some subjects, textbooks can cost upwards of $150 each (Lomakina, 2010), and textbook prices have increased rapidly (Koch, 2006; Maplethorpe, 2007).
These high prices place considerable financial burden on both students and universities. One study found that the cost of books and supplies was 26% of the cost of tuition at public 4-year universities in the U.S., and noted that students must make this investment at the beginning of the semester, often before financial aid is disbursed (Maplethorpe, 2007). Much of this cost ends up getting passed on to the universities and to the U.S. Government through financial aid (Koch, 2006).
Why are college textbooks so expensive? The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an advisory group to congress and the Department of Education, has cited a number of reasons (Koch, 2006). These reasons include the inelastic demand for textbooks; oligopolistic markets in both publishing and wholesaling of textbooks; the fact that the people choosing the products (professors) are not actually paying for them; and the fact that new editions can effectively remove market competition coming from used textbooks. The committee further notes that price increases have been partially driven by “bundling” (including extras, such as workbooks, DVDs and websites, even to students who will never use them) (Koch, 2006).
Students gained some reprieve with the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which went into effect on July 1, 2010 (Filippenko, 2010) This required publishers to offer unbundled copies of textbooks. It also made sure that professors can know the prices of textbooks when deciding which to use, and required universities to make textbook choices known early, so that students can look for alternative sources.
Further solutions to this problem have been suggested, including electronic and “no frills” versions of texts (Koch, 2006), and encouraging a form of open-source publishing that would greatly reduce costs by circumventing traditional publishers entirely, but would also allow authors to retain control of their work (Filippenko, 2010). Although these solutions may have potential to improve the situation, they are really outside of the control of students themselves. What can students themselves do when they are faced with the problem of high textbook costs?
The best solution for students is to use the internet as an alternative source for textbooks. Although this takes some planning ahead, students can save a significant amount by looking outside of the on-campus bookstore monopoly to see what online sellers have to offer.
In fact, there are many ways that the internet can help students do this. One way is by offering students access to materials from other countries, where identical textbooks may be much less expensive. For example, Koch (2006) notes that textbook prices in Great Britain are often significantly lower than those in the U.S., and that students can sometimes save money even when accounting for shipping costs.
Several web sites also give students the option of renting expensive textbooks, rather than buying them, allowing students to typically save 70%of the price of a new textbook (Banks, 2010). Some popular sites include Chegg.com, BookRenter.com, and Skoobit.com, but traditional retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders have also added rental options for some textbooks on their websites.
The internet can also assist students by facilitating comparison shopping. Websites such as Amazon.com and Alibris.com are designed to show the prices of a number of competing sellers, including sellers who are offering used textbooks. Furthermore, one group of students at Tufts University was so fed up with high textbook prices that they started their own online service, Getchabooks.com, that compares prices at the on-campus bookstore with a variety of online purchasing and rental options, and then displays the lowest cost way of obtaining all the materials needed by a student for all their classes (Oltiski 2010).
Textbook prices have spiraled out of control, and are a concern both for educational institutions and for the students who attend them. Although institutions are slowly starting to address the problem, the best solution for students currently is to harness the power of the internet to explore the various options available for reducing textbook costs.
Banks, I. (2010, October 27). Finding the best college textbooks for rent. Retrieved December 27, 2010, from http://www.brighthub.com/education/college/articles/93171.aspx The College Board. (n.d.). Breaking down the bill: College expenses to consider. Retrieved December 27, 2010 from http://www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/add-it-up/482.html Filippenko, Z. (2010, July 26). New federal law may reduce textbook prices for students. The Daily Californian. Retrieved from http://www.dailycal.org Koch, J. V. (2006). An economic analysis of textbook pricing and textbook markets. Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about /bdscomm/list/acsfa/kochreport.pdf Lomakina, Y. (2010, September 23). Rising textbook prices lead students toward alternatives. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Retrieved from http://dailycollegian.com Maplethorp, C., & Kissane, E. (2007). Strategies for reducing students’ textbook cost. Retrieved from Minnesota Office of Higher Education: http://www.ohe.state.mn.us/pdf/textbookCostsReport.pdf Oltiski, R. (2010, September 21). Student entrepreneurs tackle high
textbook prices. The Tufts Daily. Retrieved from http://www.tuftsdaily.com