College Textbooks—How Can Students Afford Them?


College is expensive. Very expensive. And being required to buy overpriced textbooks for classes that you’re already paying an arm and a leg for is too much for many students, especially those who are already from a financially struggling family. Students have been forced to get creative with the methods by which they obtain these books, whether it’s by spending hours upon hours copying pages from a library book, finding free PDFs on the internet, buying secondhand books, or renting copies from book publishers. Could there be a better way for students to obtain materials or even a better way for professors to teach their students, maybe one with less expensive books?

How are Students Getting Their Textbooks?

For the students who can’t afford or don’t want to buy their expensive textbooks, there are other ways to acquire them, though they may take a bit more time and effort. According to Sebastian Reyes, a junior at George Washington University, he has to “find his way around things to thrive.” When he was in his freshman year, he estimated the cost of his textbooks to be around $400, but by sophomore year, he realized that he could start looking for books in the library. For the month of January alone, “he estimates he’ll spend about 48 hours in the library making scanned copies of textbooks and scouring the Internet for free PDFs.” That’s a total of two full-days!

Reyes isn’t the only student who has to jump through hoops in order to get the books he needs for his classes. Publishers, themselves, are providing educational resources to college students at lower prices, likely because they know they would make much more money if students could actually afford their products. Materials, including “interactive courseware, text rental or subscription models, innovative apps and Inclusive Access, which provides students with digital materials on the first day of class” are now becoming available at cheaper prices than what retailers are offering.

Are Professors a Part of the Problem?

The New York Times, many of its readers who are in school, and college students themselves are reporting that college professors are a part of the issue at hand. Many students are not even opening the books they are pressured into buying and wish their professors took their financial concerns into consideration when making the syllabus by only requiring them to buy textbooks that they will actually use and are worth the cost.

Regarding professors choosing the more expensive (or most?) books the market has to offer for their courses, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia and writer of the Times piece How Professors Help Rip Off Students, says, “Basic ethics suggest we have a duty to look for cheaper options before we inflict the $200 or $300 books or the $100 access codes on our students…The root problem is that it is just too easy for us, the professors, to spend other people’s money.” As a professor himself, Wu understands the other side of things—the side the students don’t see—and yet he still feels an obligation to his students to think about how buying these books will affect them. He’s right. It is easy for others to make a choice on a book or a specific type of medicine with a swift flick of their pen, not thinking about other, more affordable options when there are many times very good alternatives out there. If professors didn’t choose to use these expensive books for their course, would we be having this conversation about textbook overpricing?


I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that college textbooks are too expensive for students to be buying every semester and professors should be more careful about the books they choose for their classes. If the book is expensive and it’s the absolute best of the best, and those with lower prices simply cannot compare, then have students buy the book. But if there’s a decent book that’s cheaper or if the book will rarely be used in the class, don’t force students to buy the more expensive one! A part of me worries about the students who are continuing to use money they don’t have to buy these books, but another part of me wonders about those who don’t because of affordability. Students who can’t afford these books or don’t want to buy them because of their price will use their notes, lectures, slides, and anything they can find online or in the library instead. Does this put them at a disadvantage in comparison to other students? I think it does, and there must be some way to rectify this problem or some compromise schools can make to in order to ensure that these materials are more accessible for students from all financial backgrounds.

This post was written by one of U4SC’s Educators 4SC Research Assistants, Samantha.