Affordable Textbooks at Online Colleges: How Students Save Money

affordable textbooks

While college includes many expenses, learning how to find affordable textbooks is a small bonus that can make a big difference. Pursuing online degrees has revolutionized the way many students approach higher education. This learning modality has made college education more accessible to all types of students.

But beyond flexibility, online programs are also much more affordable than their counterparts. While tuition will likely be the same as on-campus courses, students can save on other things. For instance, online students don’t have to travel daily to attend campus lectures, saving them over $2,000 per year.

Another factor that makes online learning appealing is the availability of affordable textbooks. Traditional textbooks are expensive, costing an average of $105.37. On the other hand, digital textbooks are obtained at a fraction of the cost, sometimes even for free.

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Digital college books for cheap online learning have become increasingly prevalent. It allowed students to allocate more funds to other important college costs, such as tuition and living expenses.

Why Textbook Affordability Matters

When discussing the cost of higher education, the focus is often on tuition, and with good reason. Tuition is the most expensive part of earning a degree. The average annual cost of tuition for an on-campus bachelor’s degree is $21,832, and $20,513 for a graduate degree. As a result, many students and parents overlook smaller matters, such as how to get college books cheaper.

Just like tuition, the cost of textbooks has been on a relentless upward trend over the past decade. According to the Education Data Initiative, textbook prices have been increasing by an average of 6% each year. While options like renting or buying second-hand textbooks can offer some relief, many students still find the cost to be a significant burden.

The rising cost of textbooks has significantly contributed to the student debt crisis. In addition to being expensive, textbooks’ resale value is constantly decreasing. Publishers produce new editions of textbooks every year or so. This means students are stuck with an expensive book they can’t get their money back for.

But thanks to the Internet, students can obtain affordable textbooks online for college. Here’s a very quick overview of how to get college books cheaper online:

  • Visit reputable websites like Amazon, AbeBooks, eBay,, Bigwords, and
  • Compare prices across different platforms.
  • Explore Open Educational Resources (OER).

The benefits of online college textbook savings extend beyond mere financial relief. They also promote students’ overall success in their degree programs by giving them more access to learning materials.

A lot of online colleges have heard students cry for help. From developing textbook affordability initiatives to providing personalized college cost-saving tips, many higher education institutions are actively working to address the issue of expensive textbooks.

Top Textbook Affordability Initiatives at Online Colleges

Online colleges have developed several initiatives to increase students’ online education savings. While these initiatives differ from institution to institution, they share the same goal: to reduce students’ financial burdens and guarantee that they have access to the required course materials.

Some colleges offer free textbooks for online students. However, these textbooks are typically only for introductory courses.

Here are a few of the most popular initiatives:

  • Digital textbooks
  • Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Inclusive Access Programs
  • Textbook Rentals and Subscription Services
  • Scholarships and Financial Aid for Textbooks

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are freely accessible online resources. OERs consist of tools, materials, and techniques that facilitate knowledge access like:

  • entire courses
  • course materials
  • modules
  • textbooks
  • videos
  • assessments
  • software

OERs offer many advantages. Firstly, they enhance students’ learning experiences by catering to their specific needs. Secondly, OERs contribute to significant cost savings for students, allowing them to allocate funds toward additional courses.

Here are a few examples of colleges that successfully use OERs:

  • The Open Course Library from Washington State University. This is a curated collection of educational materials for 81 popular college courses. Currently, it has 42 courses offering faculty affordable and high-quality resources where students don’t spend more than $30 on textbooks.
  • Free Online Course Materials from California State University. This OER has a collection of over 35,000 open course materials.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This web-based platform offers college students access to several MIT course lecture notes, assignments, exams, and video lectures.

Digital Textbooks

Technology has changed how we learn. Technological advances have hastened the move away from printed textbooks to digital textbooks. As per IndustryARC’s interactive textbook industry overview, the global e-textbooks market is projected to develop at a 7.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2021 to 2026, with a projected value of $3.7 billion.

Digital textbooks are the digital rendition of printed textbooks. They’re known to have more benefits than printed ones.

The top benefit of digital textbooks is affordability. They are significantly cheaper, costing 40-50% less than paper copies. Other benefits include:

  • Convenience in reading. Digital textbook contents are easily downloadable and viewable across multiple other devices.
  • More interactive. These textbooks feature audio, video, and tools for highlighting. Some even have collaborative capabilities, allowing students and educators to interact.
  • They can be updated in real-time. It offers a more versatile learning resource that changes to reflect the latest information and developments in a field.

Inclusive Access Programs

Inclusive Access is a program that helps students get their hands on learning stuff for less money. Instead of students worrying about different book versions or having money troubles to get what they need, these online subscriptions ensure teachers can pick the books they prefer while ensuring everyone gets the newest info.

One of the top colleges utilizing an inclusive access program is IUPU at Indianapolis. IUPUI works with over 25 publishers for inclusive Access and saved students over $2 million in one semester. Furthermore, UC Davis also reports saving students millions of dollars, with discounts of 50 to 70 percent off the print retail price.

Textbook Rentals and Subscription Services

As mentioned earlier, buying textbooks can often be a significant financial burden. Another practical approach to reduce textbook costs is to rent. The size of the global e-textbook rental market is projected to rise at a 20.1% CAGR to reach USD 2035.48 million in 2031.

You can find rental and subscription services in many places, like college libraries, physical bookstores, and online bookstores. Just remember the return deadline before renting a book. You may be required to pay a late or “buy-out” fee if you fail to return the book before the deadline, and such costs may be high.

This practical approach gives you access to textbooks at approximately a quarter of the price of buying a used version. You can compare the textbook rental services in your area and choose the one with the friendliest price.

Another advantage of renting a textbook is having a set amount of time to read it. Conversely, buying a book may lead to procrastination, with the text often left untouched after fulfilling immediate class needs, eventually becoming a dust collector on the shelf.

Scholarships and Financial Aid for Textbooks

Yes, you read that right! There are also scholarships and financial aid to help students with affordable textbooks. However, they’re rare and are often part of the tuition scholarship package.

Some universities and outside organizations offer grants or vouchers specifically for buying textbooks. The best way to book scholarships includes:

  • Check with your school’s financial aid office.
  • Look into relevant organizations.
  • Use online databases such as Scholarship360.

Here are quick tips on how to secure book scholarships:

  1. Ensure you meet the eligibility criteria.
  2. Prepare requirements/documents ahead of time. It often includes transcripts, references, and proof of enrollment.
  3. Be authentic in crafting your essay. Explain why the book scholarship would benefit you.
  4. Submit all your required documents before the application deadline. The earlier, the better.

Tips for Students to Save on Textbooks

Being clever about how you obtain your textbooks could really save you money. Here are some student budget tips to consider:

Buying used books

Most campus bookstores sell pre-owned textbooks, but they can run out quickly at the start of the semester. Luckily, there are many websites where you can buy used affordable textbooks. It’s a good idea to compare prices on different sites to find the best deal.

Sharing with classmates

Try asking students in your class if you can borrow their textbook for a day or two. You can also look for someone who can split the cost of the book.

Exploring library resources

All colleges and universities have libraries. Usually, these libraries have the books on your mandatory reading lists, which are commonly free. Make your reservation in advance and return the book before the due date to avoid late fees.

Checking the open education network

Several colleges are part of the Open Textbook Network. This resource offers a collection of peer-reviewed academic textbooks online, freely accessible to students.


Textbooks are a necessity for a student’s success in college. While their costs might seem negligible at first, they can add up to a massive financial burden over time.

Fortunately, more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the detrimental effect of expensive textbooks on their students. They’re starting to offer one or more affordable tuition initiative programs to alleviate the financial strain of textbook purchases. Additionally, with the rise of digital resources and open educational materials, students now have more accessible and cost-effective options than ever before.