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4 ways to cut college textbook costs

College students -- and their parents -- should expect higher book prices again this year.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 7, 2012 2:19PM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


SmartMoney on MSN MoneyEven after the semester's first tuition bill is paid and the back-to-campus supplies purchased, the bills don't end for college-bound students. Along with tuition, textbook costs keep rising too.


Image: Student in classroom (© StockByte/PictureQuest)The average student at a private four-year college spent $1,213 on textbooks and course materials for the 2011-12 academic year, a 3% increase from the previous year, according to The College Board, a nonprofit that tracks college costs. Students at public schools forked over $1,168, also up 3%. And some college experts expect costs to rise again this fall, as many books add expensive extras such as Web-based tutorials and supplements that can each cost $50 or more.


"That's burned a lot of students," says Nicole Allen, textbooks program director at The Student Public Interest Research Groups, a consumer advocate.


But experts say college students can snap up all their required reading without sapping their Friday night funds. It may just take some planning and hustle. Less expensive rental and e-book options have broadened. Apple, for example, launched its new e-textbooks platform in January, and the National Association of College Stores says all of its 3,000 member stores will have their own rental programs this semester, up from 1,500 in 2010.


Either renting a title or getting it as an e-book could cut each textbook price in half -- or better -- as booksellers compete. At Barnes & Noble, "Spanish for Business and Finance" costs $81.34 new, but as little as $19.68 as a rental, a 76% discount. Also, a growing number of professors are opting to use so-called open-source textbooks, which are free. That means more students might encounter those texts this semester, Allen says, and could see more of them if they lobby professors to use them. (Post continues below.)

Not every textbook is available as either a rental or an e-book, and pricing varies widely, says Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores. Students hunting for the best deal may find they need to rent some books, buy a few as e-books and print copies of the rest. Below are some tips for maximizing your savings.


Weigh book bundles

It's not uncommon for publishers to create online homework supplements to go with a textbook. By law, they have to offer each component separately, so students aren't forced to buy more than they need. But it may actually be cheaper to buy the text and access code for online materials as a bundle rather than separately. Pearson sells a "Maternal & Child Nursing Care" bundle with a textbook and online access code for $155.40. The text itself is as cheap as $95.80 (used) on other sites, but online access costs $66.67 bought separately -- driving the total purchase to $162.47, or 5% more. Some online access codes are single-use, too, so buying a used text or renting may not cut costs on those supplements, says Allen. 


Check for coupon codes

There are often incentives that can cut bills further, or sweeten an expensive purchase. Through Sept. 30, Amazon has a $5 MP3 credit that's worth $25 in new textbook purchases, and lets users enter the code "AUGRETAIL" through Aug. 31 for an extra 5% off two or more rentals and 10% off four rentals.


Schmidt says students should check their college bookstores, many of which run back-to-school deals on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, for example, recently tweeted about a "Pop in for Popcorn" promotion that offered students free popcorn and a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase.


Assess rental agreements

Some services assess fines for excessive highlighting, or for returning a book after the rental period expires. Rental site Chegg charges a 15-day extension fee that varies based on the book's cost, and then later charges the remainder of the book's purchase price if the book still isn't returned. (The site does allow users to change due dates based on their semester schedule.)

In e-book formats, rentals may limit the number of pages you can print -- and disappear from the e-reader when the rental term ends, along with any electronic notes you made. Renting may not be cost-effective, either, if the text is one that you might use over several semesters. "It's fine if you're an engineering major who's taking a philosophy course to fulfill a humanities requirement," says Schmidt.


Compare all formats

E-books and rentals are often cheaper, but don't disregard old-fashioned used print copies. By Amazon's estimates, consumers could save as much as 60% on textbooks by buying them as e-books, 80% if they opt to rent an e-book, and 90% if buying a used print text. Architecture text "Fundamentals of Building Construction: Materials and Methods," for example, is $66 as an e-book, a 7% discount off the $71.32 price for the new hardcover. Used print versions start at $55, a 23% discount.


Comparison site checks for new, used, e-book and rental options across dozens of sites.


More on SmartMoney and MSN Money:


Aug 7, 2012 9:41PM
Another option is to check the library. I had to pay all of my own expenses for college, so any penny I could save helped. Often the campus library will have previous editions of textbooks. I found that the difference between the 4th and 5th editions could be something as minor as a different question in the 3rd chapter. This worked especially well during summer sessioins, because you could check the book out two , or three times, then theclass was over.
Aug 8, 2012 2:27PM
Rentals are fine, but read the fine print.  If you return the book late they will charge you a huge (in our case a $127.00) late fee.  Still, I am glad their are other options out there than just buying a new or used textbook.
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