Another school year has started, and for college students it's time for the quarterly ritual that drains accounts faster than any other expense: Buying books.
Since 1978, the cost of books has increased a jaw-dropping 812%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation in the same period was about 250%.
The entire textbook industry has unfortunate similarities to the corporate-run healthcare industry, claims Kevin Carey in a recent Slate article.
"The college textbook market is unusual in that the person deciding what people should buy -- the professor -- isn't the one actually doing the buying," Carey writes.
In fact, college textbooks sold through campus stores are padded with fees that help keep the bookstores in business. Out of every dollar spent on textbooks, the college bookstore itself takes more than one-fifth of it.
For the 2011-12 academic school year, the average full-time student spent $711 in campus bookstores, according to the National Association of College Stores. Of that, about $420 is for course books and materials (both new and used). On average, students spent $68 per new texts and $53 per used book. That adds up quickly, especially when considering outliers in averages -- some used textbooks can cost more than $100, while others may cost pennies.
But the Internet age offers some alternatives for students sticking to a budget.
Check for public domain books
If you're a literature or English major, this is for you. Books written before 1923 -- think classics from Jane Austen and Walt Whitman -- are all free to read on sites like Google Books. Most ereaders like Kindles, Nooks and Kobo readers also have more than a million books that are free through public domain.
Shop used online
College bookstores still mark up the price on used items. (Remember, college stores keep about 21% of the cost of a textbook.) Shopping online -- even taking into account shipping costs -- is often less than what might be paid in the campus store. Half.com sells books for up to 97% off the retail cost, which can make for some impressive deals. Amazon sells used textbooks for up to 90% off.
Why buy when you can rentTextbook rentals are a new trend -- and both retailers and campus bookstores are cashing in on it. Rental programs are perfect for students who have no intention of keeping a two-inch tome for even a second after the class is completed. Amazon has a rental program. So does Barnes & Noble. Even Half.com added a rental program. The price of a rental varies, but it averages about one-third to one-quarter of the full retail price of a textbook.
Think outside of the book covers
Some students are making use of the vast archive of materials on the web and coming up with substitutes for assigned reading through a site called Boundless.com. Downloading the sites' application (which can be accessed on pretty much any mobile device or home computer) costs $20. After that, there are no more fees. Boundless offers what it calls "textbook replacement." Students type their assigned reading into the app and are given content that explains the same ideas and concepts. Boundless claims its users have better grades than those using traditional textbooks.
Students (and the parents who often fund them) need to remember that book shopping doesn't begin and end on campus. The best deals are often digital ones. And often, just a few taps away.