Why Are College Books So Expensive? Best 2024

Why Are College Books So Expensive
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College books are inarguably expensive. They’re not just pricey; they can be downright prohibitive. But why is this the case? Why Are College Books So Expensive? And what should students and parents be aware of when purchasing them?

In this blog post, Penn Book will look at some key factors that contribute to the high price tag on college books and how you can make smarter choices about what to buy and where to buy it from.

Average Cost of College Textbooks

The average price of college textbooks can vary widely depending on a variety of factors such as the subject matter, the publisher, and whether the book is new or used.

According to the College Board, the average cost of a college textbook was around $80 to $175 for the 2020-2021 academic year. However, prices can range from less than $20 for a used book to over $300 for a new textbook in some cases.

It’s worth noting that many students also have to purchase multiple textbooks per semester, which can quickly add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year. Additionally, some courses may require access codes or online materials that can also increase the overall cost of required course materials.

Publishers vs. Students: A Captive Market

Publishers vs. Students

To make matters worse, college bookstores are run not by publishers but by the campus itself, and sales staff is trained to sell students anything, including services or tutoring, whether they need it or not.

They don’t necessarily offer the lowest prices. Students can be charged hundreds of dollars more for a textbook than other consumers who buy their books at online retailers like Amazon or BookaCheap.com.

One reason is that college bookstores have no competition and therefore can set higher prices and still sell out. They know that if the bookstore sells out, students will shut down their search for books and either drop the course or delay buying a text sometimes until just before the class begins.

Students who buy used college textbooks online or over the phone suffer no such penalty.

Why Are College Books So Expensive?

While state legislatures are cutting budgets for public education and students pay more to attend, textbooks prices continue to increase at three to four times the inflation rate. And if you buy new textbooks, your college bookstore is not obligated to sell them back.

The community’s bookstore may be a publishing giant, but its local competitor, the college bookstore, is an island unto itself, a self-contained monopoly that operates under different rules.

Limited Competition

The college textbook market is dominated by a small number of publishers, which limits competition and allows publishers to set high prices. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the five largest textbook publishers controlled about 80% of the market in 2013.

This lack of competition means that publishers can charge high prices without fear of losing business to competitors. Moreover, publishers often use strategies such as bundling materials or providing access codes that can’t be resold, which further limits competition and can increase costs for students.

Frequent Updates

Faculty Indifference

Many college textbooks require frequent updates to keep up with changes in the field, new research, or advancements in technology. While these updates can be necessary for maintaining the accuracy and relevance of the material, they can also drive up the cost of producing and purchasing the books.

Additionally, publishers may release new editions of textbooks that are only slightly updated from the previous version, but that still require students to purchase a new book instead of a used one.

Production Costs

Producing college textbooks can be expensive due to the use of specialized academic authors, editors, and illustrators.

Textbooks are typically more complex to produce than other types of books, and publishers may also need to invest in specialized printing and binding processes. These costs can add up quickly and be reflected in the price of the textbook.


College bookstores or online retailers may act as middlemen between publishers and students, adding their own markups to the cost of the textbooks. This can be especially true for college bookstores, which may be owned by the university or a third-party company.

In some cases, these middlemen may also require publishers to offer discounts or other incentives to feature their textbooks in the store.

Lack Of Alternative Options

Students are often required to purchase specific textbooks for their courses, leaving them with few alternative options to choose from. This lack of choice can make it difficult for students to find affordable options.

Additionally, some courses may require access codes or online materials that are only available through the purchase of a new textbook, further limiting the choices available to students. Without alternatives, students may feel compelled to purchase textbooks at whatever price they are offered, which can contribute to the high cost of textbooks.

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Students Under Surveillance: Publishers & Data

Publishers are also reluctant to allow students to sell or rent textbooks because it undermines their control over the market and collecting data. Why? Because most of the power players in publishing do not see selling books but licensing them, which has earned them more than $6 billion annually.

Ways to Save on Textbooks

Ways to Save on Textbooks

Buy Used or Rent

One of the easiest ways to save money on college books is to buy used or rent them. Many college bookstores and online retailers offer used textbooks for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

In addition, rental programs have become increasingly popular and can be a cost-effective option for students who only need a textbook for a semester.

Some websites offer rental services that allow you to rent textbooks for a specific amount of time, while others offer textbook subscription services that allow you to rent multiple books over the course of a semester or year.

Comparison Shop

Another way to save money on college books is to comparison shop. Don’t just buy the first textbook you see; instead, do some research and compare prices at different stores and websites.

You may find that the same textbook is available at a much lower price from a different retailer. In addition, don’t forget to check out local used bookstores and online marketplaces like eBay or Amazon, as these can also offer lower prices.

Use the Library

Many college libraries have copies of textbooks that students can borrow for free. While you may not be able to keep the textbook for the entire semester, borrowing a copy can be a great way to save money on course materials.

In addition, many libraries also offer access to digital versions of textbooks and academic journals, which can be a cost-effective alternative to purchasing physical copies.

Look for Digital Options

Digital textbooks and course materials can also be a great way to save money. E-books and other digital resources are often less expensive than their physical counterparts, and they can also be more convenient to carry around.

In addition, many professors are starting to incorporate open-source educational resources into their courses, which are freely available and can be accessed online.

Buy and Sell Online

Finally, buying and selling textbooks online can be a great way to save money. There are several websites that allow students to buy and sell used textbooks, including Amazon, eBay, and Chegg.

When selling textbooks, be sure to take good care of them and keep them in good condition, as this can increase their resale value. Additionally, when buying textbooks, make sure to read reviews and check the seller’s reputation to ensure that you are getting a good deal.

Compare Book Types (If Available)

Compare Book Types

Some publishers offer different versions of the same book. There are some types you might want to consider:

Closed version – This is a textbook that has been copyrighted, and its author has reserved all rights.

Why? Because they can control the price, restrict distribution, and prevent other people from publishing or distributing their work without permission.

So what? Well, you have no control over the content unless you are a copyright holder or have permission to make changes. The book will not be sold to other students at a lower price since it is still under copyright. It’s useless if you don’t meet the requirements of the class.

Accessible version – This type of book has also been copyrighted, but the contents can be viewed online with permission.

Why? To make access to the book easier for students taking a class that requires it and have no ownership of it after it is purchased or accessed.

So what? If your instructor assigns this type of textbook, you won’t be able to resell it or purchase one from another classmate after the course is over.

Virtual version – This type of book hasn’t been published—not in paper format, at least. If you can read it, then that means it’s a virtual book. The information is digitized and electronically displayed on a computer screen or other technology to allow students access to the instructions and data.

An instructor accesses virtual books to provide real-time feedback or discussion in a traditional classroom setting. Why? To accommodate all students without having the expense of printing copies for each one.

Proprietary version – This is an electronically downloadable book that is sold on a particular website. It can be read only on that website.

Why? Because it is cheaper to give you access to one website than all of them for content or new up-to-date editions and formats.

So what? If your instructor requires this kind of book for the course, you can’t use it in another class and expect to have access unless the original version has been updated to the same format.

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Check The Open Education Network

If you want to find an open-source textbook, then try The Open Education Network. It is designed to help students save money on textbooks by providing information about books that are already under the Creative Commons copyright or those with waivers that allow them to be used for free. Why pay thousands of dollars for a book when others can be accessed for free on this resource?

Access more than 500 books available at The Open Education Network.

Share Textbooks With Classmates Or Friends

You don’t have to buy your books if you can share them with friends or a classmate. If two or more of you are in the same class and assigned the same book, it may be possible for you to share the cost. Be sure to check with your instructor about this option before taking advantage of it.

Most Mistakes Of Students When Buying College Books

What are some common mistakes students make when buying college books

When it comes to buying college books, there are a few common mistakes that students tend to make. One of the biggest mistakes is waiting until the last minute to buy books. This can lead to students paying more for books than they need to, as prices tend to go up closer to the start of the semester.

Another mistake is not checking to see if the bookstore has the book in stock before purchasing it online. This can lead to students paying for shipping costs, as well as having to wait longer to receive the book.

Finally, students should always compare prices before buying a book, as different sellers may have different prices for the same book. By taking the time to avoid these common mistakes, students can save themselves both time and money when it comes to buying college books.

Tips For Buying College Books

There are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing college books that will help ensure you get the most for your money. The first is to wait to buy your books until after your syllabus has been released. This way you can be sure you are only buying the books you absolutely need.

Many times professors will assign readings from the textbook, but there will also be a number of required and recommended readings that are available online or in the library. Purchasing only the required texts will save you a good deal of money.

Another tip is to check online retailers and compare prices before heading to the campus bookstore. More often than not, you will find that the prices offered by online retailers are significantly lower than those at the campus bookstore. When possible, try to purchase used books as they will be cheaper than buying new ones.

Keep in mind that some professors require students to purchase the latest edition of the textbook, so be sure to double-check before buying a used book.

Finally, be sure to take advantage of any book rental options that may be available through your school or online retailers. This can be a great way to save money on costly textbooks.

What Are Some Alternatives to Buying College Textbooks?

What are some alternatives to buying college textbooks

There are many ways to avoid spending money on college textbooks. The first way is to check with your professor to see if the textbook is actually required for the class. Oftentimes, professors will assign readings from the textbook as homework but will not require students to purchase the book.

Secondly, you can check to see if your campus library has a copy of the textbook. This is a great option if you only need the book for a short period of time. You can also look online for free versions of the textbook. Although these might be illegal, there are many websites that offer pdfs of popular textbooks.

Another option is to see if you can find a digital or audio version of the textbook online. Many times, these versions are cheaper than the print versions and can be just as effective for your needs.

Finally, you could see if there are any used copies of the textbook available for purchase. Used textbooks are often significantly cheaper than brand-new ones, and they can be just as helpful for your studies.

Whichever route you choose, be sure to compare prices and look for the best deal to save yourself some money on your college expenses.



How do I make sure I’m buying the right college books?

Making sure you have the right college books can be tricky- especially if you’re an online student. The best way to make sure you’re getting the right books is to talk to your professor. They will be able to tell you exactly which books you need for the class. If you’re unsure about which edition you need, your professor will also be able to help with that.

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Another way to make sure you’re getting the right books is to look at the syllabus. The syllabus will have all of the required readings listed. If you’re still unsure, there are a few websites that can help, like Chegg.com. You can search for your class and it will show you all of the required and recommended readings.

Making sure you have the right books is important because it will help you do well in class. If you’re missing a required reading, you may fall behind and have a difficult time catching up. So take the time to double-check that you have all of the right books before the semester starts!

Is it worth it to buy college books used?

There are a few things to consider when purchasing college books used. The first is the condition of the book. Make sure to inspect it for water damage, missing pages, or a loose binding. If the book is in poor condition, it may not be worth the purchase.

The second thing to consider is if the edition of the book is the most recent. Sometimes a new edition of a textbook will come out and the changes are minimal. In this case, it may not be necessary to buy the newest edition. However, if there are substantial changes, then the newest edition would be worth the investment.

The last thing to consider is the price. Used books are typically cheaper than buying new ones, but sometimes the price difference is not that significant. It is important to compare prices and make sure you are getting a good deal before making a purchase.

What are some tips for buying college textbooks online?

There are a few things to keep in mind when buying college textbooks online. First, be sure to check the return policy of the website or seller before making your purchase. Many online sellers do not accept returns, so it’s important to make sure you’re comfortable with the policy before completing your transaction.

Secondly, be aware of the condition of the textbook you’re buying. Be sure to check the listing carefully to see if the book is new, used, or refurbished.

New textbooks will obviously be the most expensive, but used and refurbished books can be significantly cheaper. Keep in mind that some online sellers may sell international editions of textbooks, which can be cheaper but may not be compatible with U.S. coursework.

Finally, be sure to compare prices between different online sellers before making your purchase. With a little bit of research, you can find the best deal on the textbook you need.

What are the pros and cons of renting college textbooks?

Renting textbooks has become a popular option for college students in recent years. There are a number of advantages to renting textbooks, including the fact that it is often cheaper than buying textbooks outright.

Renting also allows students to have access to the latest editions of textbooks, which can be important for courses that change from semester to semester. Another advantage of renting textbooks is that it is often easier to return rented textbooks than to sell used textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.

There are a few disadvantages to renting textbooks as well. One is that students who rent textbooks may not have access to them during summer break or other times when they are not enrolled in classes.

Additionally, students who rent textbooks may not be able to highlight or write in them, which can make studying more difficult. Finally, if a student loses a rented textbook, they may be responsible for paying for the full cost of the textbook.


The cost of college books is a burden for many students, and the high prices show no signs of decreasing. The cost of living and other expenses continue to rise, but salaries have not increased at the same rate. Many students are forced to take out loans to cover the cost of their education, and the high cost of college books only adds to this burden.

If you are struggling to afford the cost of your college books, there are a few options available to you. You can check to see if your school offers any discounts on books, or you can look for used books online or at local bookstores.

You can also try to find scholarships or grants that can help you cover the cost of your books. Whatever you do, don’t let the high cost of college books keep you from getting the education you deserve. Thanks for reading!

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