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Michael Dulaney, a student at Millersville University, stacks new textbooks in the campus book store last week. 

When students graduate from a university, the class often bands together to donate toward a gift to their alma mater: a new landmark, perhaps, a tree, a scholarship fund.

At Penn State’s University Park campus last spring, the Class of 2018 gave money to help underclassmen purchase textbooks.

Like many class gifts, this one was a sign of its time. Over the past decade, according to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a new textbook has risen from $57 to $80.

Multiply a student’s book list by several classes, and the expense can be a rude surprise. According to the College Board, the average student last year spent $1,250 on books and required supplies — and that’s on top of tuition, room, board and fees.

There are some ways, though, that careful planning and a little coordination during the semester will help a student cut that bill. Some resources can be found online, while others are much closer: just across campus, at the bookstore.

Textbook tips

“I think students need to be more aware that the cost of course material exists. (It) needs to be factored in when budgeting for college,” Lisa Schorr says. Textbook manager at Millersville University’s bookstore, Schorr says that “here at Millersville we have a number of first-generation college students. Families are sometimes surprised that there is yet another expense past tuition.”

And that expense will need to be taken care of, whether the materials are a traditional textbook or, as is increasingly happening, online, in e-book form.

Like an increasing number of colleges, Millersville offers book buyback programs once an academic term has ended — an option if a student knows a book won’t be used as a reference for an upper-level course.

Schorr suggests four other money-saving tips:

— Buy used books. To have the best chance at nabbing a used book, shop as soon as textbooks go on sale for a semester. But keep in mind that faculty members have been known to change their minds at the last minute, and schedules can change. You don’t want to be stuck with a book that’s no longer on the syllabus, or for a class in which you’re no longer enrolled.

— See if an e-book option is available.

— Rent a book instead of purchasing. Just remember, Schorr cautions, to return it by the deadline.

MU bookstore policy states that failure to do it is a “violation of the rental agreement and will become an intent to purchase.” A student’s credit card will be charged the difference between the rental and purchase price, plus a 10 percent “non-return fee.”

At Elizabethtown College, the bookstore uses a third-party software program to allow students to compare textbook pricing at different outlets.

“When our students go to our website and put in the course number, it will bring up all the books they will need,” says Susan Doremus, director of the college’s bookstore.

If the student then clicks on an individual book title, Doremus says, the site then shows them what the college bookstore has in stock — both new and used — as well as “options all over the internet, with pricing.”

When students register for a class, she adds, higher-education laws require that Elizabethtown record the total cost of the class, including materials. Having that information, in advance, Doremus says, gives bookstore staff a little lead time to track down as many used copies as they can to have in stock.

Doremus was the bookstore’s textbook manager for 15 years before taking on her current duties, she says, adding that Elizabethtown students still usually opt for a book in hand rather than an e-book. “I think a lot of students may share their books,” or attempt to save money by not buying the textbook until it’s absolutely necessary.

“We actually sell a lot of textbooks right before finals,” Doremus says. “They still end up (spending the money) because the sharing doesn’t (work) so well during the week of finals.”

At Elizabethtown, as at other colleges, Doremus says, some classes require materials for which publishers include access codes (See “Parent and Student Tips” for more information) that are not discounted, and which expire at the end of the marking period.

Those materials, she says, go directly from publisher to student without involving a college bookstore, and “they can be outrageously expensive. It’s just a little passcode in an envelope, and I’ve seen it (sold by publishers for) $200, $250.”

If you must buy one of these codes, one of the only ways you’ll save money is to avoid losing the code — requiring you to buy another one — or avoid opting to drop the class.

Unlike a textbook for a dropped class, Doremus says, a code that has been opened, or used even once, can’t be returned for any money. And if you drop the envelope in a puddle, misplace it or open it incorrectly, you’re out of luck.


Some colleges, instead of handling their bookstores themselves, turn the responsibility — and the rules — over to outside management.

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A combination of new and used textbooks sits ready for students earlier this month at Millersville University's college bookstore. 

Barnes & Noble College, which manages more than 750 bookstores nationwide, is one of these companies. In this region, BNC operates bookstores for Franklin & Marshall, Lebanon Valley and Albright colleges, as well as Penn State University locations and Reading Area Community College.

Amanda Howe has been with Barnes & Noble College for nearly 20 years, with experience at four educational institution bookstores as well. The role of college bookstores has “absolutely” changed since she entered the field.

The end result of those changes, she says? Options.

Physical textbooks have been joined by digital formats, rental programs, access codes, open educational resources (known in the field as OERs) price matching and other alternatives that can save money.

Some money-saving possibilities are unique to Barnes & Noble College, and must be approved by college administration and faculty. One is its First Day program, which provides materials at a discount when students register for a class, then delivers those materials digitally on or before the first day of class.

Another is an effort to make choosing the right format easier, by offering a textbook in a new print version as well as the digital, rental and used formats. Students can choose the format that best suits their needs and budget.

BNC, Howe says, estimates that students have saved more than $1.5 billion by using those rental, used book and digital options in bookstores it operates.