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Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive? Students Face Multiple Hurdles

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Mar. 28 2022, Published 12:25 p.m. ET

One of the most expensive parts of college is undeniably tuition. However, most people don't realize that the costs don't stop there. College students or their families have to pay for expensive textbooks. In a place that prioritizes access to education, why are college textbooks so expensive?

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Many students think the first monetary hurdle with college is getting enough financial aid to pay for tuition, but there's one more cost after that — getting textbooks. College students brace themselves for long lines and high prices at the campus bookstore or scan the internet hoping to find great prices for books in usable condition.

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Certain factors contribute to college textbook prices.

College textbooks are organized into two main categories — new or used. Within those two categories, there are subsets like buy or rent. Students can decide to buy or rent a new or used book. Depending on where the book is from or what type of book it is, the prices can run high for either category. Another point to factor in is what type of book a student's professor requires them to get. For example, a professor may require a student to purchase the latest edition of a book.

Since the newest edition of a textbook is the most recent, there probably won't be any used ones at a discounted price. Also, for books that are the latest edition, rentals may be cheaper but not by a lot. So, either way, a college student may be stuck with paying $100 or more for a textbook. According to Study.com, the average college student spends $662 annually on textbooks course materials alone.

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For students with specific majors, textbook prices can fluctuate greatly. For example, a student studying science or medicine may find that prices for books change constantly. These fields require books to have the most up-to-date information since the industry is constantly being updated with new research. In comparison, an English major may see price increases for books, but not as high as a science major since most English textbooks are anthologies with stories that don't change.

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Publishing companies and professors leverage the demand of textbooks.

In some cases, professors may require students to purchase books that they have authored or edited. Most students know that if it's a required book they have no choice but to purchase it or their grades will suffer. Publishers are also using the '"required textbook" rule to bind students into ever-rising costs because they know students need their books.

According to a report from the New York Post, Alex Neal, the Campusbooks.com CEO, said that publishers are forcing students to buy new books. He said, "Since the publishers don't make any money off used-books sales, their business model is to make the old editions obsolete and force you to buy a new book." A 2018 study by Cengage Group revealed that 43 percent of previous and current college students skipped meals in order to have enough money for books.

The same study also revealed that "85 percent of current and former students say that their textbooks and course material expenses are financially stressful, more so than meals, healthcare, housing, and tuition." While there are alternatives to purchasing books like digital ones, used ones on Amazon, or other third-party sellers, there isn't a guarantee that students will find the exact book (at a cheaper rate) that the professor requires for the course.

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