On Friday afternoons between work and rugby practice, Brittany Wolfe would rush to the campus library hoping all of the copies of her advanced-algebra textbook had not been checked out by like-minded classmates.
It was part of the math major’s routine last quarter at the University of California, Los Angeles. The alternative was to buy a $120 book and sell it back for far less. If she could sell it back at all.
Wolfe, a new graduate who estimates she saved $800 a year using books on reserve, now shares textbook tips as a counselor to incoming UCLA students.
A new federal law requires publishers to provide textbook-price information to professors and calls on colleges to identify course textbooks during registration, giving students more time to shop around. At the same time, a robust online marketplace of used books and recent inroads by textbook-rental programs give students more options than ever.
According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, college textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades, though not as much as tuition.
More recent data from the National Association of College Stores show textbooks costs climbed 14 percent from the 2006-07 academic year to 2008-09. A 2010 survey by the group found students spent an average of $667 per year on required course materials including textbooks.
In 2008, Congress included textbook-affordability provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Along with the price-disclosure clause meant to push professors toward cheaper options, it requires publishers to offer textbooks separately from extra items such as workbooks and CDs.
These days, sites such as BIGWORDS and BestBookBuys let students search several online stores at once.
Textbook-rental sites such as Chegg, BookRenter and CollegeBookRenter offer rentals at roughly half the cost of buying.
Textbook publisher Cengage Learning began renting directly to students last spring and has expanded its online rental inventory to 3,000 titles.
Campus bookstore operator Follett will introduce rentals at more than 800 bookstores this fall, and Barnes & Noble will do the same on more than 300 campuses.