Why Do College Books Cost So Much?

The Price of Books Can Be Shocking for New College Students

College Books
College Books. wohnai / Flickr

In high school, books were generally provided by the school district at tax payer expense. Not so in college. Many new college students are shocked to find that their college textbooks can cost over $1,000 a year. This article helps explain the cost.

Also be sure to read the article on how to save money on college books.

College books are not cheap. An individual book will often well over $100, sometimes over $200.

The cost of books for a year of college can easily top $1,000. This is true whether you attend a pricey private university or an inexpensive community college--unlike tuition, room and board, the list price for any given book will be the same at any type of college.

The reasons books cost so much are many:

  • Sheer number - Compared to high school, a semester of college uses a lot more books. You'll have longer reading assignments and many courses will assign readings from more than one book.
  • Copyright - The publishers of large anthologies of recent writings need to pay copyright fees to every author in the book. A poetry anthology for a literature class, for example, may involve clearing hundreds of copyrights.
  • Highly specialized material - Many college textbooks are highly specialized and the material is unavailable in any other book. The low volume of published books and the lack of market competition drive publishers to jack up prices.
  • Current material - While the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet doesn't change from one year to the next, many college subjects are continually evolving. Publishers need to keep their books up-to-date by releasing new editions frequently. A textbook on biomaterials, astronomy, terrorism, or abnormal psychology will be painfully out-of-date if it is 15 years old.
  • Online companions - Many textbooks are complemented by online resources. The subscription fee is built in to the cost of the book.
  • Supplies - For art, lab and science classes, the estimated cost of books often includes supplies, lab necessities and calculators
  • Lack of used textbooks - Publishers make no money when too many used books are in circulation. As a consequence, they will often release new editions every few years in order to make the used books obsolete. You'll need to talk to your professor to see if earlier editions of a book are acceptable for your class.
  • Review and desk copies - Book publishers make money only when college professors adopt their books. This often means that they send free review copies to potential instructors. The cost of this practice is offset by the high price students pay for books. In recent years these review copies have often been electronic, but publishers still need to put money into promoting their products to professors.
  • Faculty control - In high school, the choice of books if often decided by a department or committee. Price and negotiations with publishers may be part of this process. In college, individual faculty members usually have complete control over their choice of books. Not all professors are sensitive to cost, and some will even assign expensive books they authored themselves (sometimes collecting royalties in the process).

    College students often find themselves in a bind because of the high price of books. Not buying the books is not an option if a student hopes to succeed in the class, but the high cost can be prohibitive. Luckily, in many cases there are ways to save money by buying used books, renting books, and in some cases sharing books (learn more about saving money on books).

    Related Article: Differences Between High School and College Academics

    College textbooks can easily cost more than $1,000 a year, and this burden can sometimes be a significant impediment to academic success for financially strapped students who can't handle the cost. Not buying books isn't an option if you plan to succeed in college, but paying for the books may also seem impossible.

    There are many reasons for the high price of books. There are also many ways to make your books cost less:

    • Buy Used - Most college bookstores sell used books when they are available. Savings are often around 25%. The information in a used book is as good as a new one, and sometimes you'll even benefit from a former student's notes. Get to the bookstore early - used books often sell out quickly.
    • Buy Online - Online bookstores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble often discount books up to 20%. Sometimes you can pick up a used copy online for even less. But be careful. Make sure you're getting the correct edition, and make sure shipping costs aren't more than you're saving.
    • Buy an Electronic Edition - Many textbooks are available as e-books, and the costs will often be less since there are no material, printing, or shipping costs associated with an e-book.
    • Sell Back Your Books - Most colleges have a book buy-back program. If a book is one that you aren't likely to need in the future, you can often get part of your investment back by selling it to the bookstore at the end of the semester.
    • Buy from Fellow Students - If one of your peers is taking a class this semester that you are planning to take next semester, offer to buy books directly from the student. You can probably get a significant discount yet still offer a better price than what the college would pay through its buy-back program. 
    • Go to the Library - Some books may be available from the college or community library. Just don't write in a book that isn't your own.
    • Borrow a Book - Can you find a student who took the same class in a previous semester? Or perhaps the professor has an extra copy that he or she would be willing to lend you.
    • Photocopy - Some professors use just a small portion of a book. If so, you may be able to photocopy the assigned reading from a classmate's book rather than purchasing a book yourself. Realize, however, that copying large portions of a book is often a copyright violation.
    • Rent Your Books - Book rentals have grown in popularity in recent years. Amazon offers rentals for many popular textbooks often with a savings of 30% or more. Chegg.com is another popular rental option. Just be sure to take good care of your books so that you don't end up with extra fees, and be careful about renting books in your major -- you may want them for future reference in other courses.

    Some of these tips require that you get the reading list well before a course starts. Often the college bookstore will have this information. If not, you can send a polite email to the professor.

    A final note: I don't recommend sharing a book with a student who is in the same course as you.

    In class, each student will be expected to have a book. Also, when paper and exam time rolls around, you are both likely to want the book at the same time.