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    The StratEDgy blog is intended to be a thoughtful hub for discussion about strategy and competition in higher education.

The Good and Bad News About Shopping for Textbooks
September 2, 2012 - 11:18pm

It’s the time of year when students must gather their course materials as classes begin. Long gone is the obligatory march through the campus store purchasing textbooks. These days, students can start their search online and their options have multiplied. 

As IHE blogger Joshua Kim mentioned last week, the cost of textbooks continues to climb.  Entrepreneurs have responded to these dynamics by introducing start-ups with new business models. Audrey Watters recently covered some of the industry’s most current announcements. Then there is IHE’s coverage of Boundless Education, an organization trying to replace textbooks with freely available materials.

What does this actually mean for students acquiring course materials each semester?  Students have more options than ever before, but do all of these choices translate into cost savings and/or enhanced learning?

I investigated the options a student might find when searching for the following textbook, Financial Accounting, 7th edition by Libby, Libby and Short.  The first eight providers on the first few pages of Google results ranged from Amazon to I found more than five prices for the new, hardcover version of this book, from $84.27 to $207.99 and used hardcover prices from $113.00 to $149.99. Most book rental prices hovered around $50-55, while e-rentals were more varied.

It might actually have become harder to decide which is the best textbook option or to even know if you have found the best deal. Should you go with print or digital? Rented, new or used? Check it out from the local library or use the copy on reserve at the college library? Should you take your chances buying from an unknown Amazon or eBay seller who says a book is ‘gently used’ with ‘barely any’ marks?  Should you buy or rent an older edition than is required and take your chances? How can you tell if the version with the supplemental web materials is worth the extra cost? Is it best to simply go to the campus store? 

It is encouraging that students can find books at a lower cost, however are they expected to comb through pages of Google results comparing prices and formats for each textbook they need? While it reinforces the importance of being an informed consumer, it does require time to research and compare options. One way a graduate program in Boston handles this issue is to build the cost of books into tuition, and the program coordinator supplies students with all of their textbooks at the start of each semester. Perhaps as the higher ed publishing industry continues to morph, other solutions will have to emerge.


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