Cost of College Textbooks Per Year and How To Save Money

college textbooks

The average college student spends between $1,200 and $1,300 for books and supplies in a single academic year. The rise in college textbook prices has forced many students to work extra hours to be able to afford them. Some stopped renting or buying their textbooks which have become too expensive. 

Fortunately, you can save money on textbooks. You should include textbook expenses in your education budget. This technique helps you avoid last-minute surprises and overspending.

As you look for affordable college textbooks, advocate for their affordability. Support initiatives that promote open-access materials. Encourage faculty to consider textbook costs when selecting course materials and requirements.

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The increasing costs of college textbooks have risen by 59% since 2003. Inflation, high demand, and the lack of competition among publishers are the economic factors that cause the steep rise. Indeed, the cost of college textbooks has increased three times the inflation rate.

Such is the negative impact of the increasing costs of college textbooks that students have chosen not to buy their required textbooks or delayed their enrollment in courses. The financial stress, in turn, affects their academic performance and progress.

Textbooks are, after all, crucial for both educators and students. Professors use textbooks for reference purposes and as discussion aids. Students use textbooks to gain a better understanding of the subject, highlight important points, and study for exams. Even after graduation, textbooks are used for reference purposes. Nursing law and medical books are prime examples.

The burden doesn’t affect every student the same way either. Students from low-income and moderate-income families are disproportionately affected. Suffice it to say that the textbook broke phenomenon further highlighted the socioeconomic inequalities in the college setting.

Factors Influencing the Cost of College Textbooks

By understanding the factors that contribute to the rising costs of college textbooks, we are in a better position to address the issue.

The consolidation of publishing companies, such as the planned Cengage and McGraw-Hill merger, raises valid concerns. With less competition among publishing companies, their pricing power increases. As a result, students decrease their purchasing power.

Publishing companies also cite rising production, administrative, and marketing costs for the increase in textbook prices. However, because the demand for college textbooks remains stable, if not high, publishers have the upper hand.

Edition Updates and Access Codes

New editions of textbooks are also released on a more frequent basis, many of which only have minor revisions, which results in older versions becoming obsolete. This is particularly true for STEM textbooks that publishers assert cost more to produce, revise, and reproduce.

Students are also prevented from buying secondhand textbooks because access codes are included in the new versions. Digital versions are limited in their availability which, in turn, forces students to either buy more expensive access codes or buy physical copies.

Demand for Supplemental Materials

Students aren’t only required to buy primary textbooks. They also get access to their supplemental materials, such as study guides, workbooks, and for-a-fee online resources. The bundling results in higher prices.

College Bookstore Prices vs. Online Retailers

College bookstores add their overhead and operation costs to the textbooks’ publisher-set prices. Online retailers offer more competitive prices on their textbooks, but their shipping costs, delivery times, and quality (i.e., opportunity costs) must be considered.

Strategies to Save Money on College Textbooks

The good news is that there are many effective ways of saving money on college textbooks. Being resourceful, creative, and willing to spend time on these strategies is a must.

Buying Used or Renting Textbooks

Consider used textbooks on sale. These books are available in campus bookstores, student-run exchanges, and online marketplaces. They sell for a fraction of the price of brand-new textbooks, too, depending on their condition. Chegg, Amazon, and AbeBooks are excellent websites for this purpose.

Find textbook rental services that sell books for a lot less than the price of new copies. On-campus bookstores and online sites, such as and BooksRun, are the most common options.

You should also consider working with your classmates in forming study groups where book sharing can happen, in addition to sharing notes and points.

Exploring E-book and Digital Rental Options

In general, digital textbooks for students are more affordable than physical textbooks. This is because digital textbooks don’t involve traditional production costs. Publishing them entails no paper, ink, and shipping costs.

However, e-books require an electronic device, such as a tablet or an e-reader, with the appropriate application to read them. Explore Google Play Books, Kindle App, or Bluefire Reader. McGraw-Hill eBookstore is a great place to start.

Digital rental platforms help you save money on college textbooks. You get temporary access to affordable e-books through a subscription service. It means no long-term ownership is required. Look into, Textbook Revolution, and VitalSource Bookshelf.

Utilizing Library Resources and Open Educational Resources (OER)

Why pay for textbooks when you can access many of them for free or for minimal fees?

  • Borrow your professors’ required textbooks from on-campus libraries to make notes and study for exams. Explore interlibrary loan services, too, at public libraries.
  • Use open educational resources. Certain textbooks, lecture notes, and supplemental materials are free to access for end users.
  • Learn about using open educational resources in your course syllabus. 

Comparison Shopping and Price-Matching

You should always compare the prices of textbooks among physical stores and online sites, as well as consider shipping costs, if any.

Keep these tips in mind, too, in getting the best value.

  • Timing is key. Buy your textbooks during promotional periods, such as at the end of the semester and promotional periods.
  • Take advantage of discounts and price-matching policies. Book retailers often match the prices of their competitors. 

These strategies involve careful planning, too, so don’t start looking for textbooks during the first day of classes. You can ask professors and students about the required textbooks and start looking for affordable options. On the first day of classes, you should have many of them on hand.

Budgeting Tips for Managing Textbook Expenses

With textbooks being expensive, you must be proactive in managing their costs early on.

Including Textbook Costs in Overall Education Budget

Be sure to include the cost of the required textbooks and their supplemental materials in your college budget. You should allocate a specific amount for textbook expenses, say, $500 for the semester. Monitor your textbook expenses throughout the semester so you can adjust your spending.

Selling Back or Sharing Textbooks with Peers

If you bought your textbooks, you must consider the best places for selling them once these aren’t needed anymore. You can sell them to your fellow students in the campus bookstores and online marketplaces. Your fellow students may also agree to share the cost of your required textbooks and share them for study sessions.

Seeking Out Free or Low-Cost Alternatives

The most obvious strategy to reduce textbook costs is to look for free or affordable alternatives. These include library resources, open educational resources, and digital repositories and online archives (e.g., Project Gutenberg).

Long-Term Solutions to Address Textbook Affordability

In addition to these college textbook budgeting tips, you should also consider long-term solutions with your fellow students, professors, and the academic community. You, a student, can empower others to take on the issue.

Advocating for Open Access and Affordable Textbook Initiatives

Becoming an advocate for affordable access to learning materials requires hard work, but it’s possible.

  • Encourage fellow students to create, use, and change open educational resources. You can also share textbooks, and promote affordable textbooks.
  • Collaborate with professors, libraries, and academic organizations to promote affordable textbooks.

Encouraging Faculty to Consider Textbook Costs in Course Selection

Don’t be afraid to discuss the wide range of options for making learning materials more accessible with your professors. You will find that these discussions will expand the perspective of textbook access among everybody concerned.

Supporting Legislation for Textbook Price Transparency

Your legislators must recognize the importance of access to education including learning materials. Write to them about your concerns. Work with educational organizations, consumer advocacy groups, and think tanks that seek to address the “textbook broke” phenomenon.


Manage your college textbook spending. Plan and budget carefully. Collaborate with other students, professors, and consumer advocacy groups to reduce textbook costs. Be on the lookout for cost-saving strategies, too, and ways of empowering your fellow students to fight back.