College Textbook Prices Have Risen A Ridiculous Amount Since 1977, So Here's How To Fight Back And Save Money

Bad news, college kids — it’s not just your tuition that’s going to eat all your money this fall. Apparently, college textbook prices have risen a mind-blowing 1,041 percent from January 1977 to June 2015, according to an NBC News review of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s over three times the rate of inflation. Three. Times.

If you want to pause here in order to let out a loud moan, I get it. I’ll wait.

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Welcome back! So, how exactly can we explain the ridiculous prices of textbooks? It's actually relatively easy to see how it happens. Here's the deal: When you buy college textbooks, you’re just buying what has been assigned to you by your professors, which means that the people who are making the purchasing decisions aren't the ones who are paying the price. This, in turn, makes it easy for sellers to raise the prices way past what they’d go for in a simpler market system. 

Explains Ben Popken at NBC:

"They've been able to keep raising prices because students are 'captive consumers.' They have to buy whatever books they're assigned," said Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.
In some ways, this is similar to a pharmaceutical sales model where the publishers spend their time wooing the decision makers to adopt their product. In this case, it's professors instead of doctors.
"Professors are not price-sensitive and they then assign and students have no say," said Ariel Diaz, CEO of Boundless, a free and low-cost textbook publisher.

Of course, textbook sellers and publishers say that these numbers are misleading, especially because many students now choose to rent their books, buy used copies, or sell their books back at the end of the semester. But just consider that for a moment: A defense for textbook sellers is that books aren’t too expensive because most people are forced to use work-arounds to avoid actually buying them at market price.

Does that strike anyone else as weird?

With that in mind, I’ve worked out some ways to save your money for something that actually matters (pumpkin beer, herringbone fall sweaters, posters of Audrey Hepburn in your dorm room... just kidding, you will regret those posters). This guide to beating the textbook system has got your back this fall:

1. Avoid Your Campus Bookstore

Your campus bookstore might have an awesome collection of sweatpants with your school mascot on them, but that’s the most you should use it for. Online retailers, especially huge ones like Amazon, will give you a better deal because they assume that you’re a savvy consumer who is looking around for the best price.

2. Share a Book with a Friend

The easiest way to cut your textbook cost in half is to make friends with someone else in the class you’re taking. Assigned a chapter of reading? Have a study session together (complete with homemade snacks, if you’re fancy), or have one of you photograph the chapter you’re assigned on your phone. If your professor wants to go over the book in class, have photocopies ready.

3. Find Out If You Really Need the Book

Oh man, I’ve bought so many college textbooks that I never opened. Many times, professors just ask you to purchase books as supplemental, optional reading, though you might not know it until you get your syllabus on the first day of class — in other words, after most people have already purchased their books. Now, far be it from me to tell any college students not to go above and beyond, but if you love the topic you’re studying, there are less expensive ways to go more in-depth — going to your school library, for instance, or researching scholarly articles online. You frugal Hermione Granger, you!

4. Check the School Library

Your school library probably doesn’t have the most up-to-date versions of your textbook, but it's likely that at least some of the books you’ll be assigned aren't textbooks — think novels, philosophical tracts, popular histories, political arguments, and so on. In your liberal arts classes, you’ll probably read books that are available from any general interest book source and, unlike hardcore textbooks, don’t have superficial “updates” every few years. You can get these from a library or, if the books are old enough that they’ve entered the public domain, digitally via Project Gutenberg.

5. Buy and Sell Books Directly From Other Students

Know someone who is taking a class this semester you’re interested in? Offer to buy their old textbook. Often times, students who sell their textbooks after class is over use a middleman like their campus bookstore to buy back and resell their tomes; however, it’s usually a better deal for both buyer and seller to just work with each other directly. (Finally — a way to make textbook economics work in your favor!)

The best thing about using these techniques to lower the cost of your textbooks? They essentially increase the supply pool of the textbooks — and as your Econ textbook could tell you, that acts as a force to lower the overall price of the books. That’s right: in your own capitalist way, you’re helping other students down the line just by saving money. How’s that for learnin’? 

Images: CollegeDegrees360, Aaron Brown, CollegeDegrees360Jack AmickCanadian Pacific, Kevin Dooley/Flickr

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