Shopping for college textbooks: 2010 vs. 1995

This post is from my (much) younger sister, Elyse. She’s starting college at Tulane University in the fall and is buying textbooks. To see how shopping for college textbooks has changed in the last 15 years thanks to the Internet and other technology, look for my comments in orange about what buying books was like when I went to college in the mid-90’s!

Amazon Kindle DXBuying college textbooks can be quite daunting. Next semester I will be taking six classes at Tulane. Four of those have listed books so far. When I went to college, professors didn’t have web sites to list textbooks on, so we didn't know what the books would be until we showed up for the semester. So there wasn’t much time to shop for alternative sources. Even without my last two classes, the books total $707.80 new. Wow, prices have gone up a lot! I do remember that some new books were over $100, but on average I spent much less than $177 per class.

I cannot, or at least choose not, to afford that absurd amount on my part-time-summer-only swim coach/life guarding salary (this is also my only spending money for the year). I considered getting a Kindle or iPad and buying e-books, but they didn’t look much cheaper than paperback editions of textbooks. This certainly wasn’t an option in 1995! Carrying around just one e-reader, instead of multiple heavy books, would be nice. And, with an e-reader, I couldn’t remember where things are like I can in a book. Plus it’s about 10% slower to read on an e-reader than a paper book.

So my next idea was to look on and Amazon. This is a major change: my only options were the school and commercial bookstores around campus, and the occasional in-person book exchange organized by a student group. In 1995, people wanted to be able to sell books directly to one another, cutting out the oligarchic bookstores as middlemen, but there wasn’t a good tool to match buyers and sellers. The Internet has made it much easier to comparison shop, letting students escape the overpriced-book bubble of campuses.

Cultural anthropology textbook

Textbook: $76 new; $2.79 used

I got lucky and found my Cultural Anthropology book for $2.79 for a savings of about $73. This is the equivalent of approximately 10 hours of work for me. However dubious I was about the quality or legitimacy of the book, I decided to buy it. That was on a Thursday.

The following Monday, I got a small paper envelope in the mail. Inside was the book in almost perfect condition. When I bought used textbooks in person, I got a chance to look through them first, so the risk of a damaged book was lessened. That is one perk of buying used books in person, but getting them cheaper online outweighs that. For anyone else needing to buy textbooks I would definitely recommend taking a few minutes to look for used items online. It will be well worth your time!

Update: The day after we published this post, the New York Times published a debate forum titled "The Real Cost of College Textbooks." Just like the Times to ride White Glove Apps' coattails! ;-) Well, check it out for additional perspectives on books, e-books, and prices.