College Textbook Cost Under the Microscope

You’ve paid the fees to apply to several schools.

Yes, you’re in! A college freshman. 

You’ve lined up financing for tuition, dorms, and board.

Then you go to the college bookstore to stock up on supplies and get the sticker shock of your life.

College textbooks really are outrageously expensive!

Fear not Boulder County and college students everywhere, you have some big people who are pissed about it.

Like Kanye big…

Perhaps this is a key plank of his education policy assuming “West for America” becomes a thing.

And more realistically, this issue’s caught the attention of people with real political power. 

Jared Polis, a Colorado congressman, from Boulder, is rolling out a campaign of awareness supporting open source textbooks.

In an email, Polis explained how it works,

“Colleges and universities could use textbooks under an open license, which means they’re free to use. They’re just as good of quality as traditional textbooks, but without the high price tag. Students can view the documents online with tablets and computers, and professors can contribute to the texts much in the way they do now with paper textbooks.” For example, University of Minnesota has more than 160 open textbooks available to students all around the world

While I support this one hundred percent, it’s also important that all students, from all income brackets, be able to afford print textbooks, if they choose.

Most students agree that retention and concentration of material on the printed page is better, so I subscribe to an all-of-the-above approach to lowering the costs of textbooks.

Studying advertising and journalism, I never came close to spending $1200 a year in textbooks, but my girlfriend in college was going to nursing school and she would spend $2,500 to $3,000 per year, if she was in college now.

I can think of one eBook, called The Science of Advertising, which was important in my education. You can retain a lot from reading onscreen. It’s my observation that the problem isn’t so much the screen itself but the more distracting tools and apps.

But obviously, the serious downside to an eBook, is referring to other parts of the books. This flat-out sucks onscreen compared to the printed codex and if you take notes, short of being a whiz with the annotation tools, it’s going to take longer and be more frustrating.

Some textbooks want to be free, but some such as health science, engineering (but not computer science!), to name a few,  you want an editorial team going over every square inch, for every edition, even if the procedures haven’t changed over the year. 

But liberal arts like philosophy, history, language, these types of educational materials absolutely want to be free.

Ways to look for cheap printed textbooks

As I said earlier, keeping print books available and affordable is a priority to us so I wanted to share some insights.

I rarely see a textbook on Craigslist that isn’t cheaper on eBay or Amazon.

There are trading networks such as Student2Student that connect by college so you can trade textbooks with fellow students. In general, these networks, as well as Craigslist suffer from inflated expectations from a pricing perspective on the part of the selling party.

Book Driver started the textbook buyback program to address the other side, how to get a better price for selling them then to the college bookstore. By expanding the calendar, since we buy textbooks all year-long, it gives students a chance to change their mind and still get fair value before the book’s value disappears.

Let me tell you a secret.

Most professionals rarely, if ever consult their old textbooks. Yet textbooks lose 50% of their value after the first year, assuming a new edition is out,  and an additional 25% every year there after.  

Do you need to buy the books even. Many students don’t; or they will buy an older edition and use it to study for tests. In journalism school, I bought older editions but major, journalism, wasn’t constantly adding new and complicated techniques that needed to be learned. It   doesn’t take long to explain the inverted pyramid.

Matt Johnson