Ways to Cut Costs on College Textbooks

By Julia Califano · January 18, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Ways to Cut Costs on College Textbooks

After paying for tuition, fees, and housing, you may think you’ve got the cost of college covered. Not so fast. There is a hidden additional expense students face soon after they arrive on campus — the textbooks, online access codes, and supplies required for each class.

Despite increased use of e-books, the cost of course materials — necessary to be students in class — remains steep. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average annual cost of textbooks at a four-year public college is $1,226. If you complete your degree in four years, textbooks can add nearly $5,000 to your overall education expenses.

Fortunately, there are ways to pay for college books, including grants, scholarships, and student loans. You may also be able to get some of your textbooks on the cheap — even free. Here’s what you need to know.

How Much Do College Textbooks Cost?

If you’re wondering how much college books cost, here’s a closer look. Hard copy college textbooks can run as much as $400, with an average price falling somewhere between $80 and $150. You may need more than one book for each class, plus other supplies and materials, which can all add up.

The average college student spends more than $1,200 annually on textbooks and supplies for classes each year. That’s about 39% of tuition in a community college or 14% in a public four-year college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for college textbooks increased by 7% between 2020 and 2023, which is faster than tuition inflation (which was 4.7%).

Why are textbooks so pricey? One reason is that only a few publishers control the industry. Almost 80% of the textbooks industry in the U.S. is dominated by five publishers. This lack of competition allows publishers to command steep prices. Publishers also know they have a captive audience — textbooks are a college essential so students are forced to pay whatever price the market serves up.

While digital books typically cost less than hardcovers, that’s not always the case with college textbooks. Some schools have online access agreements or contracts with publishers. This means that students must purchase a code to access all of their course materials online, typically at full price. Digital textbooks also eliminate some of the ways students can save money on print versions, like sharing, borrowing, or buying used materials.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Grants and Scholarships That Pay for College Textbooks

There are a number of private scholarships and grants designed specifically to help pay for college books. You can search for book scholarships using online tools like FastWeb and Scholarships.com . You may also want to check out these book-specific scholarship opportunities:

•   BookScouter Every quarter, BookScouter awards $500 to a student to be used towards purchasing their textbooks. To apply, you need to fill out a questionnaire and record a short video.

•   Book Lover’s Scholarship. Bold.org offers $500 to support students who love reading books and believe in the power of reading to transform their lives. To apply, you need to tell them: If you could have everyone in the world read one book, what book would you choose and why.

•   Wilhelmina Foundation The Wilhelmina Foundation’s Textbook Scholarship offers $500 to qualifying students throughout the state of Florida to help them pay for college books.

•   Carl A. Scott Book Scholarship Every year, the Carl A. Scott Memorial Fund awards two $500 scholarships — one to a student pursuing a bachelor’s of social work, and the other to a student obtaining a master of social work degree.

Recommended: Finding Free Money for College

11 Tips to Spend Less on College Textbooks

These tips can help you keep up with your studies without breaking the bank.

11 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks

1. Split the Cost with a Classmate

When thinking about how to pay for college textbooks, you might consider splitting the cost of books with a classmate to cut down on textbook expenses. While it may seem inconvenient, it could pay off.

There are a few ways to make sharing a textbook work. Try alternating study days so you each have the time you need to get your work done. Or, alternate highlighter colors to keep your notes straight. And as an added bonus, you have a built-in study buddy.

2. Buy Used Books

Sometimes on- and off-campus books stores will sell used copies of textbooks. You can also find used textbooks online at popular sites like Chegg , Abebooks , and Amazon. While you can’t examine the book before you buy online, you can often select the book’s condition (for example, Like New, Very Good, Good, and Acceptable).

When searching for used books, it’s important to make sure the book is the correct edition. The easiest way to confirm this is by using the book’s ISBN (a code that identifies specific book editions) to search.

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3. Rent Instead of Buy

In some cases, you may not need a particular text book after the semester ends. In those instances, you might consider renting. On average, renting textbooks can save you 50% compared to buying a new, printed textbook.

Some campus bookstores now offer the option of renting textbooks for a semester. Typically, you rent the book at the start of the semester and return it the first business day after finals. You can also rent textbooks through a number of online companies, including Chegg, CampusBooks , eCampus.com , and ValoreBooks . It can be a good idea to shop around and compare rental costs.

4. Get the E-Book

Printing costs are one reason for expensive textbooks. But if you don’t need to have a physical copy, and you’re not required to buy an access code through the school, you could save on college books by going with the e-book version. You can read it anywhere — your computer, tablet, or phone. Going digital can be particularly advantageous for textbooks you will refer to in the future, since the electronic version will typically include free updates.

You can buy e-textbooks from a number of online outlets, including Amazon, BooksRun , and Chegg.

5. Find a Book Swap

Some schools have clubs or organizations that run book swaps. This is where you turn in a book you’re not using to get one you need in return. While not all campuses and colleges have this available, it could be worth looking into.

You might also check with upperclassmen to see if they might be willing to sell you a textbook or even let you borrow it for the semester.

6. Settle for an Older Version

Many textbooks have new versions released every year or every few years. Sometimes professors request you have the newest version available, but not always. Check with your professor to see if an older issue is acceptable for the course.

Recommended: 10 Money Management Tips for College Students

7. Try the Library

Some classes don’t rely on books as much as others. If you know that a class will be light on the required reading, you can save on college textbooks by heading to the library. Be mindful that other students in the class might already have the same idea as you. In that case, it’s a gamble to see if you can take out a book that may not be available.

Some schools have reserve copies of textbooks in the library that you can borrow for a specific amount of time. This could mean you can get your assigned reading done without purchasing the book. But know that these library textbooks usually have some borrowing restrictions, so you may need to plan ahead.

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8. Tap into Student Loans

When you take out student loans, you can typically use that money to cover the cost of attendance, which includes not only tuition and fees but also other expenses necessary to earn your degree, like textbooks. If you have scholarships and grants, they can typically also go toward your textbooks.

If you aren’t eligible for federal financial aid or have reached the borrowing maximum for federal loans, an in-school private student loan can be a useful alternative.

With private loans, you can borrow up to 100% of the school-certified cost of attendance, and the loans can be used for textbooks, supplies, and other college expenses. Just keep in mind that private student loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-driven repayment plans and deferment or forbearance — that come with federal student loans.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

9. Sell Old Textbooks

The cost of college textbooks is an unavoidable expense, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some of your money back.

You may be able to sell textbooks you’re finished with back to the bookstore where you bought them for immediate cash. Or, you might be able to sell them online at sites like Amazon, BooksRun,
, BookScouter , or Chegg. When you sell online, the process is often as simple as entering your book information, accepting an offer, sending it in, and getting paid.

If you know students who are going to take the same class you just took, you might offer to sell your textbooks to them for less than they would pay for a used book at the bookstore but more than you would get in a buyback, for a win-win.

10. Use Open Educational Resources (OERs)

Open educational resources (OERs) are course materials available for free online that can be downloaded and shared. A growing number of universities are allowing their faculty to adopt OER course materials to help reduce costs for students. You can find these free educational materials at OERCommons .

There are also other sites that offer free access to textbooks, including Project Gutenberg and OpenStax from Rice University.

11. Use Textbook Price Comparison Sites

These days, it’s fairly easy to compare textbook prices before you buy to make sure you’re getting the best deal. Some comparison sites to check out:

•   Amazon Offering one of the largest selections of college textbooks, you can access a large number of sellers on Amazon.

•   AbeBooks This website has a deep database of textbook sellers (including local sellers) to help you find the lowest available price.

•   BigWords This is a search engine designed to help you find the best prices and shipping costs on college textbooks.

•   Bookscouter This site compares a large number of textbook websites to help you find the best price to both buy and sell your textbooks.

•   CheapestTextbooks This is a free price comparison page for buying, renting and selling textbooks. They also price-compare e-books for rent or purchase.

•   SlugBooks Here, you can search by author and title or ISBN to find the best online deal for textbooks.

The Takeaway

Depending on your class needs and personal preference, you may be able to significantly cut the cost of college textbooks by heading to the library or opting for an e-book, a textbook rental, or a used copy of the book.

In addition, you might seek out and apply for a book scholarship to help cover some of your textbook expenses. If you have any type of student loan and can use it to make your textbook purchases, those funds can also be a big help.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


What percent of college students can’t afford textbooks?

Around one in four college students decide not to acquire at least one course material, according to a 2023 survey from the National Association of College Stores. According to the Education Data Initiative:

•   25% of students say they have worked extra hours to pay for their books and materials

•   11% of student report skipping meals in order to afford books and course materials

•   One in five students say that the cost of books and materials directly influences their decision on what classes to take

How much should I budget for textbooks?

The average full-time, in-state undergraduate student at a four-year public university pays $1,226 for books and supplies in one academic year.

How do I use my financial aid to pay for textbooks?

Typically, financial aid money is sent directly to the school. If you have money leftover after covering tuition, fees, and other school charges, the school will make the money available to you to pay for textbooks no later than the seventh day of the term.

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