What do first year students need to know about textbooks?

I was always thankful, perhaps more in hindsight than as a college student, that my parents were able to share a lot of tips big and small, about how to survive and thrive in college. Since they were college graduates themselves, they had experiences which helped me, whether it was balancing school and play, how to guess well on test questions and that it was ok to buy used textbooks.

If your a first year college student especially, if there’s one thing you should know about used textbooks, it’s that they are absolutely fine to use instead of a new textbook. In fact, they are the first copies to go at your college bookstore. I believe most stores would like to stock more, but the simple fact is, they don’t.

Unlike a car or other items, textbooks only wear out if they are replaced on the syllabus or if the professor assigns a different textbook for your class. 

Finding used textbooks locally can be a challenge though. Typically, you want to go to class the first day to make sure that the professor is going to use all the texts required. The downside of waiting is that all the used textbooks may get bought first.

Some might say, “no problem, I’ll just go on Amazon.” That’s great if you aren’t using your college loan money to also buy books and materials. Instead, you are probably tied to an account with your college bookstore although more portable debit card options are used in Colorado public colleges.

It also can be difficult to move beyond shopping at the college bookstore if your financial assistance lags behind when the school year starts. When I took a couple of classes at Red Rocks Community College, I got a small loan. The loan itself wouldn’t fund until week or two into the class but the bookstore at the college had a special account that allowed me to charge my textbooks at the store, then loan proceeds paid that automatically once the loan funds became available.

Free e-textbooks are more and more available

Another thing that first year year students should be aware of is that every year more and more of the textbooks have free versions online. While this is still rare its not unheard of and through the course of your education, there will only be more e-textbooks available at no charge.

The upside of course is lower cost and you on’t have to lug the book around. The downside is that it can be harder to concentrate, make notes, ad retain the knowledge you read on the screen. The highest profile provider of these types of materials is a company called OpenStax.org although it’s designed for adoption by the professor

However, pirated e-books, while I have no instinctive moral problem with that, just the cost of whatever else I’m downloading with it is not one I’m willing to pay! Instead of free pdf versions of textbooks, another low cost strategy is buying the older editions for a penny, (plus shipping of course) on Amazon, Better World Books or eBay. 

Its OK to rent textbooks

Its probably the best use of your money to rent the textbooks which will include the e-version, especially for introductory classes. The cost of renting textbooks at most Colorado colleges is about 10% to %50 less than the the cost to buy it. Most of the materials for that random humanities or English class you have to take, are never used again by students. As you get deeper into your major, there may be important books that you will use in your career, but truly the chances are remote. I’ve read textbooks about computer programming and web design but believe me, I always look something up on more up to date resources ie. online. 

The Professor matters

I feel like professors are more in touch with the costs of textbooks than they used to be, but she probably has a huge bias towards printed materials, for a number of reasons, the most important being the horrible retention that is reported in many studies of students using e-texts. I point this out not to endorse it, just to share my observation. 

I do think technologists such as Apple and Amazon are the most willing and eager to sell everyone e-textbooks, above the natural supply and demand. This happened with fiction e-books which grew fast, based on over a decade of entrepreneurs trying to make it so, and with Amazon ultimately succeeding. But a funny thing has happened over the past few years; e-books hit a plateau. 

The point I’m making is a professor sees themselves as an arbiter of standards, for a given profession or discipline of study, and ultimately most will assign the type of course material that is materially cheaper, only if it’s also materially as good! 

Not that everyone gives it much thought but while printed textbooks are about to experience a big, fat decline over the next five years, it’s still several generations of professors trained in the world of print who are running the show, and that’s probably a good thing. The only people who are in a rush are the technologists but luckily quality does matter, and all textbooks are going to come down in cost. 

Finally, a new college student should know that it’s alright to ask your professor about past editions or other places the textbook might be available to get. Some college libraries will have reference copies to read in the library. She might suggest an online resource. Either way, you’ll know where she stands.