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Buying Textbooks: Hidden Cost of Studying at College Essay

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Updated: Sep 2nd, 2021

Though many states now have lotteries that help offset the cost of registration and fees at state colleges, students are still faced with the overwhelming expense of textbooks. In addition, scholarships offered by many universities cover tuition and fees, even room and board, but not the costs of textbooks. Parents and students often overlook this crucial expense when making financial arrangements to cover college costs. And why not? Rarely do students purchase textbooks until they enter college. Most high schools, largely because of state regulations, offer textbooks free to students. Until they get into the college bookstores, many students have no idea that a single text may be as high as $200.

The NY Times editorial blog is right on the money, literally. One of the hidden costs of a college education is textbook purchase. In years past, students could count on being able to take their texts back to the bookstore to re-sell so that other students could buy them used at a discount. However, many colleges follow two-year adoption cycles, meaning new editions with minor changes in pagination, structure, or content are just enough to throw a wrench into the re-selling process.

The three points in the bi-partisan legislation described in the blog would be helpful in eliminating some of the high costs. For example, faculty members should be advised ahead of time of prices for the textbooks they are considering for use in their courses. This is especially important for adjunct professors who do not usually get a vote in the adoption process but are supposed to use the book chosen. This often results in adjunct course instructors using only bits and pieces of the adopted texts, and requiring students to purchase supplemental materials, another cost on top of the initial one.

Additionally, the pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped versions of textbooks are not always necessary and the proposed legislation would provide that textbooks be sold to students without all the ancillary materials required for purchase too. In some cases, students might actually prefer to have just a CD version of the textbook over the actual hard copy, but can’t buy it separately as it stands now.

Finally, the legislation would require that colleges post the prices of textbooks well in advance of opening day of classes. Yes, to that. Allowing time for students to browse used book websites for the best deals or to visit off-campus booksellers for better deals is imperative. Unfortunately, some college bookstores are made or broken on their sales of textbooks. They have a financial interest in “springing” required textbooks on students at the last minute so that students have no recourse but to purchase in the campus bookstore.

As difficult as it is for many students to afford their texts for undergraduate courses, the problem becomes even more hurtful for science, engineering, and other technical majors who must not only have textbooks but usually lab manuals, instruction and tech manuals, and even software programs in order to continue higher level courses. Graduate students are simply doomed when it comes to purchasing books because their courses are so highly specialized.

Savvy students have learned a few tricks to avoid some of the high costs of textbooks. For example, friends who take the same courses may register for different sessions so they can buy one book but share it among several users. Some students use older editions and hope for the best when it comes to citing pages or finding the same content.

It’s time for state and federal legislation to kick in on this issue. With rising fuel, food, housing, and credit card costs, many students are losing the option of a college education at the very time when the economy of our nation depends on more technical school and college graduates. The inability to pay for expensive, use-one-time-and-can’t-resell textbooks shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether students can go to college.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Buying Textbooks: Hidden Cost of Studying at College'. 2 September.

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