Textbook Prices Trigger Serious Sticker Shock

The price of textbooks is soaring faster than the cost of health care or home prices, according to the American Enterprise Institute

Southern California students are paying a premium for college tuition. Now, as they head back to campus for spring semester, they're also suffering sticker shock from soaring textbook prices.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, the price of textbooks has jumped by more than 800 percent since 1980. That's a faster pace than the cost of health care or home prices.

"I just bought a pre-calculus book and it was $176," said Claudia, a freshman at Cal State Northridge. For a student working for minimum wage, it would take 21 hours on the job to pay for that book.

CSUN marketing professor Kristen Walker says the students are at the mercy of the teaching faculty.

"It really is up to the professor, at least in the department of marketing," she said. "Really looking at our syllabus and what we want students to know."

Walker tries to provide more affordable photocopied reading materials, rather than books, whenever possible.

As for what's driving up the prices of books, economists blame competition. Students now have the option to buy used textbooks, or share new ones. They can even rent them. To make up for resulting profit losses, publishers can raise prices on brand-new books.

"They’re not making any money on the used text book market," said Peter Frank, co-founder of the price comparison website texts.com and more recently, the new Occupy the Bookstore, a browser plug-in that lets students compare prices on college bookstore websites. "So it’s leading to the sort of spiral of doom where publishers are selling fewer books so they need to raise the prices which causes fewer students to buy their books."

Thousands of students have already started using the Occupy extension, prompting leading book publisher Follett to threaten legal action.

Frank welcomes the fight.

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Here are other options to save money on textbooks:

  • Consider renting or book sharing;
  • Ask students who've already taken the course to share their old syllabus; you can compare older editions of the required book to the newer one — there may be cosmetic changes but no real difference in material;
  • Don't be afraid to ask the professor if an older edition will do. Unless they wrote the assigned book, they may be sympathetic to the budget challenges students are facing.
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