Average cost of a college textbook: $150
Enroll for two online courses, each requiring one textbook, and you’re instantly out $300. Take 30 online courses to earn your associate degree and watch your bank account dwindle by $4,500. And if you're taking courses in specialty areas, such as accounting, count on spending even more.
Taking steps to slash your college textbook costs can literally cut thousands off the total cost of your online education. Unlike a decade ago, students today have multiple options for getting college textbooks online, including the option of downloading some free textbooks or frequenting cheap online shopping sites.
Get Educated's editors went shopping to find the best cheap or free textbooks online.
Best Ways to Save Money on Textbooks
The Four Thousand Dollar Question: Which textbook strategy promises the best pay-off (literally) for most online students?
- Buy a new printed textbook
- Buy a used printed textbook
- Rent a printed textbook for the semester
- Rent a digital or online textbook/e-book for the semester
Let's look at these options in more detail.
Printed Textbooks — Rent & Return
You can cut university cost and save thousands by renting old-fashioned printed textbooks rather than buying them outright. Here's some eye-opening data from a textbook-renting spree around the web:
"Organic Chemistry" by John E. McMurry
BUY NEW — $209.95
RENT for a SEMESTER at BookRenter.com
RENT for a SEMESTER at Chegg.com
SAVINGS: About $135 if you choose to rent and return rather than buy that organic chem tome.
Tips for Using Textbook Rental Sites
• Read the Fine Print
Save more by scrutinizing the terms of your textbook rental agreement. For example, BookRenter.com will rent books for shorter periods than a semester, so they charge a few bucks less in return.
• Look for Shipping Discounts
Special deals are being offered as the online textbook rental business becomes super-competitive. Some online vendors already offer free or discounted shipping. Cash in on shipping incentives and save another $10 to $20 per rented textbook.
Digital Textbooks: A Good Deal?
Digital or downloadable textbooks cost an average of $50 — half to one-third the cost of a new printed textbook.
Good deal, right?
Well, maybe not.
According to the Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign
from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
, most digital textbooks (e-books) are cheaper than their printed predecessors—but only on the surface.
Dig deeper and old-fashioned printed textbooks may still be your best buy.
Most digital textbooks come with unattractive features that call into question their promise of being a “more affordable option” for online students.
First, the majority of etexts are designed to self-destruct from your hard drive 180 days after download. Make sure 180 days is enough time for you to absorb needed knowledge. If not, your books may vaporize just when you need them for a last-minute cram session. To keep your textbooks from vaporizing, you may be required to pay more fees.
More importantly, understand that you can’t resell a used e-book. After the book has been on your computer hard drive for 180 days, it’s POOF! Gone! No more book!
Many online students will find it more cost-effective to buy a printed textbook and resell it at the end of the semester or rent used printed textbooks outright.
If you own a book, you can always sell it online as a “used” book. The market for used textbooks remains hot and healthy. A printed text bought for $150 can usually be resold for about 50 percent of its sticker price.
Buy New Printed Textbook: $150
Sell Back Used at End of Semester: $75
Actual Out-of-Pocket Cost of Textbook: $75
Renting a printed textbook costs about the same as renting a digital text, but printed textbooks don’t evaporate.
And you can recoup part of the cost of your printed textbook through re-sale.
Another drawback to digital textbooks: most limit the number of pages you can print at one time. Ten pages is a typical max before the e-book locks up on you. This can be a hassle if you need to print out more than 10 pages for a portable late-night cram session.
Look for Deals in Bundled Online Textbooks
In an effort to reduce the burden of textbook costs, some online colleges have begun bargaining outright with publishers on behalf of their students.
Colorado’s Online Community College system, a consortium of 14 Colorado state-supported community colleges
, plans to tack a $49 book fee onto online tuition costs. Payment of the $49 fee will allow online students access to Pearson Education’s extension library of digital textbooks for the entire semester.
With some textbooks costing more than $150 in print format, a one-time $49 digital access fee that allows access to multiple course textbooks can be a huge cost-cutter.
Similarly, Rio Salado Community College in Arizona created a unique partnership with Pearson Custom Publishing to produce customized printed textbooks with content specific to Rio Salado’s distance learning courses.
Beginning in 2009, Rio Salado promises its online students custom textbooks for more than 30 online courses at an average savings of 51 percent off the cost of the original new textbook.
Check with your online college prior to enrollment to see if they have special production or discounted rental or fee arrangements with any print or digital textbook publishers.
Textbook publishers are under a lot of pressure to produce a better product at a lower cost now that online book publishing and distributing have gone mainstream.
Cheap Textbooks Online
Some colleges are encouraging their online faculty to create and digitally distribute their own textbooks. These self-authored educational texts can be downloaded by students worldwide at no cost, or at very little cost compared to open-market textbook prices.
Many instructor-published texts cost under $40 each—about a third the price of a commercially produced textbook. However, low-cost, instructor-published texts aren't widely available yet. You'd have to enroll in a course that offers this option to realize this type of savings.
Free Textbooks Online — Open Source and Collaboration Books
You may have heard the term “Open Source,” which is an effort to make quality educational materials available free online worldwide. Open Educational Resources (OER)
is a worldwide effort to improve access to quality education for everyone.
\Check out HippoCampus
, a non-profit distribution center for free educational texts, collaborative wikis, learning modules and study guides to help support your online education efforts.
HippoCampus is a project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE).
The goal of HippoCampus is to provide high-quality, multimedia content on general education subjects to high school and college students free of charge.
HippoCampus can also help you self-study toward competency exams, such as Advanced Placement (AP) exams in English, history, algebra and others (if your college accepts such exams for credit toward a degree or college credential).
Classic Books — Completely Free?
If you have a class in literature or the humanities, try searching Project Gutenberg
. The free digital books archived here all reside in the public domain. These online books are 100 percent free.
Download to your heart’s content and you won’t be breaking any copyright laws.
You won’t find contemporary free textbooks online at Project Gutenberg. But if your class calls for you to read a classic, like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” you can get a free and legal download of this book and many other classics from this digital treasure drove of yesteryear.