Sticker Shock: Paying for College Books


So here’s the thing. After a long hiatus from college (but with a couple degrees to show for the effort) I am starting back to school with the thought of bringing my educational background more in line with what I do for a living, as well as the modern world in general. I have applied, enrolled and registered for my courses. I knew things were going to be more expensive than when I last attended college, thus I was able to swallow the per credit cost and application fees without choking too badly. Then I went to the bookstore.

I know this is a family friendly blog, but seriously, WTF?!

The picture at the top of this post represents a cup of espresso (4 shots over ice — my natural state is a little sleepy so I need all the help can get), which cost $2.79 at my local coffee shop; and $423 worth of books from my local community college. The flippin’ books cost like $100 an inch — and one of them was used! Moreover, it’s not as though these books are ultra specialized medical texts that only few people will buy each year. These are entry level business books on marketing an selling, an Econ book and three philosophy texts. All softcover! Maybe I’m just really old, but the idea of paying over $100 for a SOFTCOVER book causes me physical pain. At the community college that I am attending, my books cost more than a two-credit class would. Why?

If I went to a “normal” book store, like Barnes & Noble say (or even just went online with Amazon) and purchased general survey books on any of these subjects, I probably would have paid well under $40 per inch. It’s even possible that such books would have been authored by tenured college professors — perhaps even more reputable ones than those who authored my textbooks. I also wonder, of course, why texts authored by college professors have to cost more than those written by authors. I mean, they already have jobs: They are getting paid to profess. It’s the people who write books for a living who need to be making big money off books. Right? Well, maybe not.

But still, the idea of softcover textbooks costing two or three times more than general subject books on the same topic really rubs me the wrong way. Textbook companies appear to be preying on captive audiences of people who are among the least able to afford them — students. I feel fortunate that within the community college model, I will only have to do this four times, total. I think back to my undergrad days at a Big Ten school. When I attended, the school was on a quarter system (it has since changed to semesters), which meant that during a regular school year I would buy books three times. If I attended a summer session, I would buy books again. Given that it took me nearly five years to finish, I probably bought undergraduate textbooks 15 or 16 times. At today’s prices, that would be more than $6,000 — or the equivalent of a year and half of tuition at my community college.

Perhaps textbook companies use particularly precious wood, hand harvested by fairly-paid indigenous people in Amazonia, who have developed fast-growing, sustainable trees which can be harvested and pulped in a manner that actually enhances the environment rather than detracting from it. That, of course, would be worth paying for, so it’s my assumption that this is the truth. Because these books couldn’t possibly cost as much as the do if they were simply machine bound using the thinnest of varnished stock from regular run-of-the-paper-mill manufacturers. It wouldn’t be right. Especially when a PDF version would’ve been just as good, not to mention lighter (though as slim as these volumes are, not much lighter) to tote around.

I have a vague notion of what I am hoping to do with my current coursework, but not a real clear picture yet. As it stands, however, if financial gain is my ultimate motivation (and to be honest, I am not sure yet if it is) it seems like I should be exploring the clearly lucrative world of textbook publishing.


  1. Jeeze…for someone who’s “frugal,” you really discredited yourself with this post. First, college students all know that the campus bookstore is the MOST expensive place to buy your books – even used. The first rule of thumb is find out if you even actually NEED the text. And by NEED, I mean go to class first, find out if you need to buy it for regular assignments. Otherwise, it’s possible to get through a college class and never use the text (trust the girl who went through 6 years of college and paid for every book – rarely using them – ugh). Next, if you don’t NEED the book, most campus libraries have the books for the students on campus to borrow for the semester. On our campus, we were able to borrow it and keep renewing it until we were done. Finally, if you’re going to buy the book – buy it online. Amazon and have used books listed for WAY cheaper than your bookstore would ever sell them. So please, if you haven’t already broken the wrap on any new books, go return those and do some shopping 🙂

    • I don’t think it’s the post that discredited me so much as paying what I did for the books! And you’re absolutely right on that one. Part of it was the way this particular school set up the book buying. You go to a window and hand them your class schedule. They don’t actually tell you what the texts are until they hand them to you and ask how you’d like to pay. Kinda sneaky. My books are shrink-wrapped and ready for return as soon as I find cheaper replacements or rentals. But that doesn’t change my sense of sticker shock.

      I have to say, though, I am interested in what the texts have to say. So, as I did through my undergrad and law degrees, I will probably just read the books rather than trying to get by without them (which would be the true frugal move, I agree). Thanks for your comment!

    • Like you, I have bought books, opened the shrinkwrap and start to study for the classes. Then after the first week, the professor has told us that we will not be using the book. It is so frustrating because you have spent your food money to buy the book and then told you will not be using it. And hopefully, you can sell it back on or and get most of the money back.

  2. I attend a college where my all my classes are online. Check the bookstore for that college online and see what books are required for the class. They will list the book and most of the time they will list the ISBN number for the book.
    You can get the ISBN and then go to or and post the ISBN number. The book will be pulled up and shown the prices for used and new. I make it a rule not to order books from people who have less than 99% on their satisfaction. Another way to get great books is on the college campus or through the college newspaper. The students will have cards posted with the books for sale.
    Most students that have financial aid and are not able to afford books unless they go through the bookstore their first semester – go speak with the college librarian, your professor or even your friends. You might be able to borrow the book for free. And if you have to pay for the book and you want to sell it back because you will not use it – sell it through or… DO NOT sell it back through the bookstore. You pay $300 buying it from the bookstore and you might get lucky and get $25 for the book selling it back to the bookstore. Normally you will be told that the college is not using the book next semester. Also in your college town, there maybe bookstores that college students go to that will have used book for the classes. Check it out.
    I do suggest that when you buy books through Amazon or any other places – make sure that the book comes with everything that your college bookstore is selling with the book, ie. CD, online code, etc.

    • I am doing the same thing. I am taking a totally online program and they list the books needed (they do sell them as well) and I get the ISBN number and go to Amazon. It’s probably 1/4 the cost. I know I do not want to sell my books since they will be reference books as well so that’s not an issue. The cost of books in general is outrageous but textbooks are ridiculously expensive. Rentals are becoming a popular thing as well. Some college bookstores specialize in used books, but they’re not always much cheaper. It might take a little effort but you can get the books you need cheaper, and it’s certainly worth it.

  3. I have 3 kids in college, and help another with text books. We use Chegg for renting most of our books, and comparison shop with, Amazon and the various colleges bookstores. We’ve saved a ton. If the student really wants to hang on to a book after the semester,we can buy it then. Chegg makes it so easy to rent textbooks and get them returned.

  4. One more comment to my post on rentals -if you go through a cash back website like Ebates,and use your reward credit card to get your text book rentals, then you can save even more money (as long as you pay off your card, of course). Every little bit helps.

  5. My daughter is a freshman at college this year. We were told by some upperclassmen last summer during orientation to wait to buy her books because sometimes the teacher decides not to use them. For her chemistry book her professor told the students that if they had the 9th edition instead of the 10th that that would work fine, so instead of paying $225.00 for a new 10th edition book we paid $39.00 for a like-new 9th edition through Amazon.

    Also, she had sociology first semester and psychology this upcoming second semester and a friend that she made at college had the opposite classes, so they are trading those books with each other instead of each buying a second book that they will only use for one semester.

  6. Try, it is a search engine that searches the different websites for your books and finds you the lowest cost for each one.

  7. Supreme Court Will Hear Case Over Foreign Textbooks Imported and Resold in U.S.

    “By Jennifer Howard [….] Is it legal to buy textbooks and other copyrighted works overseas, where they may be much cheaper, and resell them in the United States? The U.S. Supreme Court will take up that question in its next term, when it hears arguments in Supap Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. The case could have major implications for publishers intent on protecting the market for copyrighted works. It’s also being watched closely by librarians concerned that it could undermine the first-sale doctrine, which allows the buyer of a copyrighted work to lend or sell it without permission from the rights holder.”
    As an American citizen in a industry that is full of outsourcing, I’d like to understand why I’m paying the inflated textbook prices for my continuing education so that an H1-B individual can come here with a less expensive degree and undercut me….. 🙁