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The Absurd Price of Textbooks

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Jason Owen

Five hundred, ninety-six dollars and seventy-one cents!  Yeah, I’ll go numerical on you: $596.71!  Sound like a big number to a college kid (or an adult, for that matter)?  Well, it’s not what I pay for my monthly car payment or my portion of rent; it’s also not what I pay for monthly healthcare, groceries or even my drinking tab.  No, the absurd amount in question is what I was expected to pay for my textbooks this semester.  And I’m not even a full time student.

Now I did use the term “expected,” and for good reasons.  See, there’s no way I would pay such an amount for brand-new textbooks (I don’t think my drinking allowance would have allowed it).  I’m not even sure if I’d pay half the amount for my three classes.

Textbooks prices are getting way out of hand.  I don’t think I’m alone when I say the prices for today’s textbooks are nothing shy of criminal.  According to research by state PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), the new price for each edition of a textbook averages to be 12 percent higher than its previous edition.  And as the prices keep going up for new editions, they keep decreasing for the old editions.  This means any resale value you were going to get for your used book just took a nose dive.  And what do you get for a newer edition other than an increased price?  Well, it differs quite a bit depending on the subject, but one could argued the majority of your books change very little at all.

For instance, Introductory Algebra, 5th Edition, by Alan S. Tussy and Diane Koenig.  The “What’s New” portion list a few additions but nothing very noteworthy; many of these could be found by doing simple web searches and without the aid of the textbook.  But in fairness, some textbooks do undergo radical changes. Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 12th Edition, by Greg Johnson, seems to have quite a few additions to its newer version.  So there may be some underlining worth in some of these newer editions after all.  However, buyer beware: the majority of textbooks I reviewed matched my Algebra example many more times than they did the book by Mr. Johnson.  In fact, I challenge you to look at your current literature book and compare those “classics” to the literature books of your parents. There’s a good chance you’ll find more than half of the stories are shared by both books (and likely all the reading assignments too).

But what does all this mean for you?  Well, hopefully it’ll mean more money in your pocket without neglecting the knowledge you need.  Let’s revisit my $596 figure from earlier.  It included all the newest textbook editions, all brand-new, all off-the-shelf and still in their nice shiny plastic covers.  Worth it?  Perhaps, if you mean to keep a keen reference library of all your scholastic literature.  But I‘m willing to bet my audience is more like me, more interested in saving a few hundred dollars per semester than starting up their own academic library.  And so to you I say this: Do your due diligence before jumping the gun on grabbing a stiff-paged edition with the “new book smell.”

How, you ask?  Well, first things first – ask your professor before you buy.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many students don’t do this simple task, or do it after it’s too late.  I spoke with an Ethics professor on SPC’s Gibbs campus; professor Miller stated she understands the economic hardships that comes with the cost of textbooks.  She said in the past when students come to her with textbook issues she usually allows older books to be used.  She understands most new editions have little changes, and any textbook updates would either be discussed in class or via notes.  However, she did note this year’s textbook had undergone radical changes so she recommended her students purchase one if they could.  But she also told me she provides the Gibbs campus library with a copy of the current book they use, which students are more than welcome to use at the library or print out copies and take them home to study (at the current copy price-per-page, of course).

This seems more than fair, if you ask me.  And how many different textbooks are held in reserve at the Gibbs Library? Well, just under 200!  I wasn’t aware of this, and stand quite amazed with this newly discovered resource.  A challenge, then, to those of you still reading: before your next course, see what options the library holds. The $80 savings (price of the Ethics book) just may surprise you.

Another bit of advice, especially if you are unable to reach your professor before the start of class, is to try e-books.  If you have a tablet, laptop, or even a smartphone, there are a number of platforms available for you in terms of accessing textbook material.  When the class starts, ask the teacher about the kinds of textbooks they allow (previous editions, supplemental reading and so on).  Based on the answer you should be able to make a purchase and have it ready before your first break is over.  Also, many of the e-book textbook sites allow for rentals – 60 days to 180 days is pretty standard.  This can save you as much as half of a new cost of a new book.

Still, some people prefer the traditional paper books to electronic versions.  Chloe Smith is a student at SPC with aspirations of becoming a research biologist.  She prefers the black-and-white print of a good book rather than the cold bites of a tablet any day.  This is not a problem.  This semester she spent just under $300 on her books.  Not too bad, considering her course load.  How did she manage to do this without selling her right kidney, you ask?  Good ‘ol used books.  She bought most of her textbooks used off of Amazon.  She says it’s the best way she’s found for buying good but cheap (relatively, of course) books.  She’s even sold a few back after classes to keep her kidney safe for another semester or two.

Now that we’ve gone over a few penny-pinching ideas of what to do, let’s look at my favorite one of all.  Which is, of course, finding out if you really need any textbooks at all?!

I have taken almost sixty credit hours at SPC, and I can say at least 25% of my courses did not require the recommended textbooks (or at least they shouldn’t have, as I passed without opening them once).  Ever since the first time a professor told the class, “If you already got the book, return it cause we won’t need them in this class,” I stopped purchasing them until I either spoke directly with the professor or went to my first class.  I have also found most professors are accommodating with giving this information out beforehand and can be contacted at least a week before classes start (they also seem to be impressed that you cared so much, so there’s that, too).  Between lectures, notes, PowerPoint slides and other sources made available by the teachers today, one should be able to pass without too many dents to the ‘ol GPA even without a textbook.

And now one last thing to know about textbooks, and specifically SPC policy concerning them: the textbooks themselves are not, repeat NOT, mandated by the school.  Nope, every teacher – or at least every subject – has a say-so in what literature will be used for their course.  A bit of information to have in your back pocket if anyone other than your professor says you must buy a specific textbook, latest edition, or any other supplemental material to go along.

At the end of the day, your textbooks should be all about knowledge, not money.  If you can get the same amount of knowledge in a second-hand text book, then I say go cheap.  If you can rent the book for the four months you need it, then go even cheaper.  And if you can write it off entirely, learning from notes, Powerpoint, and YouTube videos, then I’d recommend hanging on to your money.  But do know all of the options available to you before you invest so much into your textbooks.  Don’t let the system strip you of your hard-earned cash and give you nothing but a bunch of abandoned dustcovers at the end of each school year.  Instead, be wise with your money, be wise with your education, and be comfortable with your choices.

Oh, and as for the $596.71 I mentioned to you earlier? Yeah I whittled that down to less than $150.  Not a bad savings if you ask me.

Originally published March 16, 2014.

Header photo by TheMacGirl (flickr creative commons)

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