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As textbook prices soar, students find cheaper alternatives

Textbook prices soar, college students try to save by renting, buying online

VIDEO: UNC-Chapel Hill students talk about renting textbooks or buying them online to save money and why they think prices are so high.
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VIDEO: UNC-Chapel Hill students talk about renting textbooks or buying them online to save money and why they think prices are so high.

The cost of college tuition is going up. Room and board is more expensive, too.

But maybe the most frustrating college price increase is the textbook – which a student will keep only for a semester (and might not open all that often).

Textbook prices have increased by slightly more than 1,000 percent since 1977, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the increases are showing no signs of stopping. The National Association of College Stores analyzed data from 2008 to 2015 and found that the average price of a new college textbook went from $57 to $82. That’s almost a 44 percent increase in just seven years.

David Anderson, executive director of higher education for the Association of American Publishers, said the data doesn’t tell the whole picture.

“What the consumer price index is showing you is that one thing, the hardbound textbook, and not all the other alternatives that are out there,” Anderson said.

His group points to another survey, by research firm Student Monitor, that found students now spend 13 percent more on average per textbook than they did 10 years ago. Its calcuations includes the purchase of used textbooks, textbook rentals, digital textbooks and purchases outside of the campus bookstore.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve bought a textbook that’s never used – two hundred bucks for a textbook I'll never have use for.

Brandon Phelps, a senior psychology major at UNC-Chapel Hill

While 13 percent may seem more manageable than 44 percent, when you factor in that students are buying multiple books for multiple classes, the total can be staggering – $1,100 was the average universities suggested students budget for the 2015-2016 year, according to the College Board.

Those prices have college students like Brandon Phelps, a senior psychology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, thinking twice before buying their required books.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve bought a textbook that’s never used – two hundred bucks for a textbook I’ll never have use for,” Phelps said. “So I’ll usually wait the first week or two to see if we’re going to need it.”

And as the Student Monitor survey suggests, students have gotten wise to saving money. They shop online, rent a book for a semester, use an open source textbook or make a deal with another student on Facebook who would rather have an extra $20 than a math book taking up space.

High prices, unclear causes

Some students blame professors – particularly those who insist on the latest edition of a textbook or those who have written the textbook themselves. The thinking being that it’s a way for the professor to pad their salary on a captive audience.

But US News & World Report wrote in an often-cited report that author (or authors) of textbooks make just 11.7 cents from an average textbook sale, based on 2008 statistics from the NACS. Publishers, it said, take home roughly 77.4 cents per dollar from an average textbook sale, but that 77.4 cents is not direct profit. The majority, 32.2 cents, covers publisher expenses such as materials and salaried employees. Marketing for the book costs around 15.4 cents. After these expenses, the publisher takes home around 18.1 cents in profit.

Jodi Magness, a religion professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote “The Archaeology of the Holy Land,” a textbook that she uses to teach her Introduction to Early Judaism classes. It was published by Cambridge University Press.

A paperback copy will cost students $34.99 if they buy it directly from Cambridge University Press. At Barnes & Noble – which now runs UNC-CH’s student bookstore – a used copy is $19.08; a new copy is $29.95; and a rental copy is $8.71.

Magness said it took more than 20 years to find a publisher willing to take on her book – the major publishers being more interested in popular fields that are sure to bring in a lot of sales, like biology or economics. She added that she would never receive enough profit from textbook sales to cover her personal costs of creating it.

Some research, such as a 2009 study from the University of Michigan Library, has revealed patterns that play a role in jacking up market prices.

That study found that textbooks are generally revised every three to four years. On average, these new versions cost 50 percent more than a used, previous iteration would. But faculty indicated that the revisions were necessary only half of the time or less. That cost lands on students like Phelps. They can pick up the expensive, new edition of their textbook – or they purchase a used, older version, and risk a potential cost to their grades.

“They keep updating [the textbooks] and you’re forced to buy the new edition,” Phelps said. “That’s where it gets extremely pricey.”

Phelps said he usually gets his books from Amazon, opting to rent or buy used. But he also thinks digital editions are a great choice because of their convenient format.

“Say I’m studying and want to find a key word,” he said. “All I have to do is search.”

Robert Kinlaw is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior. He regularly writes for College Town.

How to not spend a fortune on textbooks

▪ Wait to see if the teacher is actually using all the books in the syllabus

▪ Check the school library to see if it has a physical or digital copy of the book

▪ Use Facebook. Via its Groups feature, the social media site offers student communities that can be accessed only by users within specific schools by validating a .edu email address. Use that to find students who want to sell or possibly trade books.

▪ At UNC-CH, the Textbook Exchange group allows students to post the books they want to buy or sell. Duke University, N.C. State University and N.C. Central University all have similar groups, though some are more active than others.

▪ But digital copies on Amazon, Half.com or other sites. Use a service like BookFinder.com which sorts through dozens of retailers, creating lists designed to help users find the lowest price online. The downside of buying online is there’s no way to sell the book when it’s no longer needed.

▪ Since you’ll probably only need it for one semester, rent. Chegg is one of the most well-known options, boasting that users can save up to 90 percent by renting instead of buying. But again, the downside is that the book can’t be resold later and if you lose it, you’ll end up paying for it.

▪ More legislation may be the eventual response to climbing textbook prices. The proposed Affordable College Textbook Act would attempt to expand the use of open textbooks that can be accessed for free online.

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College Town is an online site with news by students, for students at Duke, UNC, N.C. State and N.C. Central. Students write stories, take photos and video and use social media to cover the things happening on their campuses that they find interesting and useful.

Visit CollegeTownNC.com to see more. If you're interested in working for College Town, email editor Pressley Baird at pbaird@newsobserver.com.

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