Tips for saving on college textbooks

Back-to-school shopping has started, and for college students, that means figuring out how to pay for at least one big expense: textbooks.

The average student at a four-year public college spends about $1,200 per year on course books and materials, according to the College Board, a nonprofit organization whose members are made up of colleges and educational institutions.

The bill has climbed dramatically in recent years.

From 2002 to 2012, textbook prices rose at an average rate of 6 percent annually, or about three times the rate of inflation, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Critics say the frequent rollout of updated editions for textbooks, often with little new content, has helped drive up prices. Workbooks and other materials that get bundled with books can also inflate costs.

Still, some progress has been made recently toward helping students afford their textbooks.

Because of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, publishers are now required to inform college faculty about substantial changes to a book’s content, along with pricing.

And schools are required to list a textbook’s price and International Standard Book Number in course registration materials.

The idea is that with more information, faculty and students should be able to make cost-saving choices. There are also a number of ways for students to get textbooks, from buying used to renting for a semester. Some tips:

Shop online. A book’s ISBN is a unique identifying numeric code. Punch it into a search engine — whether at your college bookstore or an online marketplace — and you can easily compare prices.

Shop around. Students taking Intro to Biology this fall at the University of Oklahoma, for example, will need the textbook, “Campbell Biology.” A new copy of the latest edition runs $241 at the college bookstore.

But you can buy the book used at the bookstore for $181. A search on websites such as Affordabook.com, Bigwords.com and BookFinder.com turned up even better deals, as low as $30 for a used copy.

The drawbacks: If you buy online, shipping times and costs will vary. Although many online sellers allow refunds within 21 days of purchase (handy if you decide to drop a class), not all do. And used books may lack CDs or electronic codes that provide access to course content online. Those items would have to be bought separately.

Rent. Buying a hardcover copy is not the only way to get a textbook these days.

You can also rent, either from online retailers or college bookstores. In fact, almost all of the 3,000 members of the National Association of College Stores now have a book rental program.

Many rental agreements last a full semester, including final exam periods. And when the term is up, you simply return the book. You don’t have to worry about storing or reselling the book.

The drawbacks: Rental costs are comparatively inexpensive, but you have to return books by their due date and keep the books in good shape (light highlighting and note-taking is usually fine). Otherwise, additional fees apply. And because rentals are often used books, they may lack the supplemental materials.

Go electronic. Finally, if you don’t mind reading your assignments online, consider an e-textbook.

Digital books can be rented or bought, again for a fraction of the cost of buying new. You can access the text on most devices (you don’t need a dedicated e-reader). And there are tools that let you highlight, take notes and so on.

The drawbacks: You may have to be connected to the Internet to read the text or download an app to your computer or other device.

And you have to be comfortable with reading and learning electronically — not a stretch for most young adults these days, but still something to consider.

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