The Textbook Challenge: How students find affordable books for classes

Students at the University of Connecticut and across the country struggle with the same challenge they face at the beginning of every semester: finding textbooks at an affordable price. (File/The Daily Campus)

Students at the University of Connecticut and across the country struggle with the same challenge they face at the beginning of every semester: finding textbooks at an affordable price.

According to a recent study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, the price of college textbooks has risen nearly 200 percent over the last two decades.

Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic attributes the price hikes to the profiteering of monopoly textbook publishers. He writes that publishers go to great lengths to take advantage of students, “from bundling textbooks with software that forces students to buy new editions instead of cheaper used copies, to suing low-cost textbook startups over flimsy copyright claims.”

Many students struggle with the financial burden of buying the necessary course materials for class. There are several ways students subvert the premium prices with a little compromise and research.

Buying Used

Buying a textbook secondhand allows students to have unlimited access to the course material and keep the copy at the end of the term. UConn’s bookstore has used books, and there are several other sites, including Amazon, Chegg and CampusBooks..

Another option is to connect with a student who has already taken the course and buy from them.

The University Network also allows students to compare-shop for the least expensive used books from students and other sellers across platforms.

While affordable, the price is only slightly cheaper than the market value of a new textbook. Connecting with other students can be tough without knowing who took the class and whether or not they might want to sell their copy.

Renting

There are several resources for renting textbooks, including via UConn’s Barnes and Noble store. Other less expensive rental sites include Amazon, Chegg, and CampusBooks. With some comparison shopping, renting can be a much more affordable alternative to buying a textbook that will go unused when the semester ends.

While cheaper than buying, rental prices can often be only slightly lower buying. Students also should be sure to return the book or they will incur penalty fees. For example, Chegg’s policy will charge for an extension fee or for the full price of the book.

E-Textbook

E-textbooks can be accessed through many of the services listed above. The online edition of a textbook can be accessed through rental or purchase from the publisher or from book-selling sites.

According to Kayla Webley of Time Magazine, students can save up to 80 percent off textbook prices in this way.

If students can spring for an e-reader, this can be a good alternative. Reading from a screen can often be draining, though, so they should make sure they’ll really be able to read the material if there is only online access available.

Sharing

Many students opt to split the price of a textbook and then share or photocopy the pages. Once the semester is finished, they sell their book back and split the profit. Depending on how many students split the cost, this can be a very accessible method.

Brittnie Carrier, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in English literature, suggests this method, and said she benefited from it during her undergraduate career.

“One time bought a textbook and split the cost with someone else because I photocopied the entire textbook for him,” Carrier said. “I had multiple jobs on campus and I used the copier of the employer I liked the least to photocopy it … I liked having the physical copy.”

Borrowing From the Library or a Professor

Most libraries, including UConn, have copies of textbooks that students can check out or make copies of for study. Another option is to contacting the professor to use their copy. Tricia D’Onofrio, an education graduate student at Central Connecticut State University, suggests this.

“I actually emailed some professors and asked to come to their office and make copies of the pages needed every few weeks because financially I couldn’t afford the texts out of pocket,” D’Onofrio said. “As long as you are willing to put in the work, that is an option.”

Many libraries don’t allow students to check out a textbook if it is in high demand, so students might have to pay to print it there or return to the library regularly to do their studying.

Finding an Older Edition

Many textbook publishers update their material without changing much of the content, so finding an older version of the text can be a good alternative.

Nathan Schachter, an eighth-semester communications major, grapples with pleasing his professors’ stipulations for certain books.

“Sometimes the professor makes students buy their edition in the bookstore, which limits the ability to save money on textbooks,” Schachter said.

Online PDF

Some textbooks have online PDF versions online which can be accessed via Google search. Type “title” “author” filetype:pdf site:edu, and the book will show up if there is an available PDF format.

Library Genesis and SciHub also have many PDF files available for free download. (https://libgen.is/) Although it only works some of the time, this can be a helpful substitute.

The question of legality and ethics arises in terms of the use of these sites. According to The New York Times, the two databases were involved in a civil suit for copyright infringement in June 2017. However, because these sites’ IP addresses are in Russia, there is no basis for criminal action.

This leaves students with the choice as to whether or not they want to take advantage of these free sites, despite their legally and morally ambiguous nature.

Not Buying the Book At All

One method that cash-strapped students try is to wait for classes to begin, and check the syllabus to see if the textbook is really necessary to pass the class. Many professors assign a textbook but provide all of the key material in their PowerPoints. Asking the instructor directly how much the textbook will be used is important, as they will often cite the textbook for supplemental reading.

Many students fly under the radar without needing to buy a textbook. One graduate student at UConn, who requested to remain anonymous, said he rarely bought books during his undergraduate career.

“I probably got books for five classes in five years,” he said. “I watch lectures on YouTube by authors, interviews and find what I can online.”


Penina Beede is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at penina.beede@uconn.edu.