Don't buy 'by the book'

By Jerome Stuart Nichols | Life Editor
Added September 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm

The extreme costs associated with attending college have been a large pill students have begrudgingly dry-swallowed for decades. Besides tuition, which usually seems disproportionate to its benefit, one also has to factor in housing and food costs. Even though these are major issues for a large majority of the student population, there doesn’t seem to be any relief coming soon.

One of the most egregious offenders of a college student’s budget is the almost universally loathed textbook.

According to a 2004 report from the State Public Interest Research Groups, the average student will spend $900 per year on college textbooks. This does not include students who attend spring and summer semesters.

This is roughly one-fifth of the cost of in-state tuition.

The same study also found the price of college textbooks is increasing at four times the rate of inflation for all other finished goods. This result is offensive, not shocking. However, you might be shocked to find when compared to countries in Africa, Europe and Asia, American students can  expect to pay an average of 72 percent more for the same textbooks.

Any college student knows the drill and unfortunately has to deal with the inflated costs in order to get the most out of their education. Or do they?

When I thought back on the time I’ve spent at Eastern Michigan University, I realized in about 80 percent of my courses I rarely or never used a textbook.

Now, I can’t say if that helped or harmed me, but I can say it saved me a lot of money.

I wanted to know if other students felt similarly, so I performed an informal online survey using a selection of about 30 students from my current slate of classes. What I found matched, almost perfectly, with my experiences.

Of the 32 people who responded, I found 100 percent believed textbooks were overpriced, 96.9 percent believed “a majority” of the textbooks they bought went unused and only 9.4 percent bought every textbook for every course.

I think the sentiment of these findings was summed up best by EMU student Samantha Thomas. When asked, “Do you buy all of the books for all of your courses?” she responded:

“Yes, but it gets very frustrating when after you buy your book, you go almost the whole semester barely cracking it open. Even if you do, you might only use a couple chapters out of the book. It just seems like a waste of money.”

I would have to agree, especially if the findings of my informal survey hold true for the rest of EMU’s student body.

The respondents to my survey suggested an annual textbook cost of around $800. Even if the percentage of people buying 100 percent of the required texts for their courses doubled in a larger scale study, that would mean even with the vast majority of students skimping on textbook purchases, our campus average is dangerously close to the $900 national average.

For this sort of financial battery, many students are looking for someone to blame. It, of course, should fall with the textbook manufacturers who set the prices and employ various other tactics to make sure students continue to buy their products, but the blame often falls lower, onto professors and school administration.

Initially I believed this was not quite fair until I did some research. I took a sample of 15 textbooks from EMU’s campus bookstore, five under $50, five $50-$100, and five $100 and more. I then compared those prices to those on Amazon.com, Half.com, eBay.com and Ned’s Bookstore.

From my sample I found all of the books at the campus bookstore were more expensive. Ned’s came in a close second, only saving you between 1-7 percent.

The rest of the options huddled close together, saving an average of about 30 percent and up to 76 percent on books below $50.

When making a buying decision, you also have to consider buy-back pricing, which in no uncertain terms is a rip-off.

In my experience, one can only expect about a 30 percent return on his or her textbooks, which would be fine if they were being resold at lower prices each subsequent semester. Unfortunately, however, it’s more common for the same book to be on sale with the same or similar pricing to the time you purchased it.

I priced out the books I sold back at the end of summer semester and only one of them is selling for less than I bought it for. I got back 20 percent of what those books were selling for at the beginning of fall term.

So, yes, the bookstores are not to be trusted, but we can leave the professors out of this, right?

Maybe, but then again, maybe not. I tried to perform a survey with faculty similar to the one I performed with students, but found myself staring at an empty inbox. I sent emails to 17 professors throughout various departments and got one response.

When I asked my solitary faculty respondent, Alida Westman, professor of psychology, “What are some ways that you try to help students with textbook costs?” she responded:

“I try to be aware of the costs, use editions for which there are second-hand copies, do not change textbooks without good cause, suggest that people buy a copy together and share it, and provide the information early enough so people can shop around. “

In my experience this seems to be a common set of practices for professors at EMU, but there are a few outliers who will, essentially, force you to buy the texts and then use them minimally. In those cases it’s hard to resist the thought of those professors having intentions that are slightly nefarious or at least financially motivated.

I have not a single shred of evidence to the effect for any professor at neither EMU nor any other university, but it is something that might be worth looking into.

We can complain all day about the textbook shakedown going on at campuses across the country or we could voice our opinions with our wallets.

Unless you are on a time crunch or can’t find the book anywhere else, there is no reason to shop at the campus bookstore, Ned’s or any other physical bookstore. The prices at local stores are greatly inflated because they have EMU’s student population as a captive customer base.

This is the same thing happening at movie theaters, stadiums and amusement parks. Because you are stuck wherever you are, businesses know it is unlikely for you to go anyplace else. This is why a Big Mac can cost $9 at Comerica Park and you will still buy it.

I understand getting our financial aid refunds on the day class starts makes it nigh impossible to get your books in a timely manner, but you have to decide if you will continue to be abused or use alternative methods.

Your best bet is to order your books early and used from an online retailer. If you must buy your books new, consider splitting the costs with a classmate, renting or checking for the book at Halle Library.

Don’t be afraid to check out less popular textbook resellers. They can seem a bit shady, but in my experience that perception has born no negative fruits. If you worry one of these sites might use or sell your information, pay using a disposable debit card.

Look at international version of your textbooks. You won’t be able to resell them to the local bookstores, but you will be able to find extreme discounts on some of the more expensive textbooks.

This is especially true for international subjects such as math and science.

Renting is another way to save a bit of cash, but you will still pay more than you should for your books. In a pinch, a short-term book rental might save you a ton of cash and eliminate the hassle of selling your books at the end of term. This might be good for people who will only need the text to complete a certain assignment.

When selling your books, always go online. The minuscule amount of money sites like Amazon and eBay ask for in exchange for using their services is negligible compared to the potential returns when selling to a bookstore.

For some classes, it might be a good idea to wait a few weeks to see if you actually need the textbook. I have already resold two books I won’t need and saved myself over a hundred dollars.

This is not always a practical solution, though, so use your own discretion.

A few respondents made mention of the digital option for textbooks, but I can’t get behind that idea.

From the two experiences I have had with digital textbooks, the digital rights management on the files is so strict it won’t allow you to have the flexibility the traditional textbook format offers.

The books I used could not be saved as files and could only be printed or accessed through an online portal.

I paid $160 to either stare at a book from afar or print a picture of it. This meant that if my laptop, tablet or cell was dead I was not able to access the content I needed when I needed it.
As it stands, there is no way to resell digital textbooks, so you would be spending money with no chance of return.

Whatever you do, check multiple sources. You would be surprised of how cheaply you can find a textbook you need when you take some time and look around.

Jerome Stuart NicholsComment