The Color of Money

Combat the rising price of textbooks

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Singletary
July 16, 2006

Thomas Jefferson said that ``books constitute capital."

The thousands of students who will soon head off to college campuses across the country know all too well that it takes quite a bit of capital these days to buy textbooks.

A Government Accountability Office report found that in the last two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation. In academic year 2003-04, students and their families spent more than $6 billion on new and used textbooks.

According to the GAO, the average estimated cost of books and supplies for a first-time, full-time student in 2003-04 was $898 at four-year public institutions. That amounted to about 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees.

At two-year public institutions, where low-income students are more likely to pursue a degree program and where tuition and fees are lower, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time full-time student was $886 -- almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees, according to the GAO report.

That, folks, is not chump change when you consider so many students are already heavily borrowing to attend college. It's not unusual for one textbook to cost more than $100.

The state Public Interest Research Groups criticized the rising cost of textbooks in a report called ``Rip-Off 101: How the Publishing Industry's Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs." The nonprofit advocacy groups found that, on average, the most widely purchased textbooks on college campuses publish new new editions every three years.

A new edition usually costs 45 percent more than a used copy of the previous edition.

The reports by the PIRGs and the GAO concluded that many factors affect textbook pricing, including the addition of ``bundled" features such as CD-ROMs and workbooks shrink-wrapped together.

Publishers say the additional book features are what professors want.

To help students combat the rising price of textbooks, many state legislatures are either considering some type of legislation or have already passed laws to address this issue.

In Connecticut, for example, publishers are now required to provide pricing information to faculty before the professors put in an order. The idea is to make educators more aware of what the final cost will be to students.

While various organizations and campaigns such as work on the policy front to lower the cost of textbooks, there are some things students can do now to reduce the capital they spend.

For instance, the California Public Interest Research Group recommends buying online at such sites as, which allows students to buy and sell used books directly from each other. The site is free but registration is required.

Try these sites:,, and But when buying online, don't forget to consider shipping expenses.

Used textbooks are typically priced at 75 percent of the retail price of the new book. Prices on used books range from $10 to $80, with the average price being about $40, according to the National Association of College Stores.

Think international, says Steve Loyola, president and founder of Best Book Buys, an online price comparison-shopping site for college students.

``Often the publisher makes an international version that is identical to the US counterpart except it might be a paperback instead of a hardback and the content is supposed to be the same," Loyola said.

Buying international versions of textbooks could save in some cases up to 90 percent off the US retail price.

To find international textbooks you can go to or

Many college bookstores list required textbooks online for each course. You need to shop early so you'll have a chance to buy used books, which often sell out quickly once classes start.

When it comes to shopping for college books, this is a textbook case (ahem) of the early bird getting the bargain.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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