Andrew Petto, PhD, is Distinguished Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. A former anatomy and physiology lecturer, he is a long-standing user of Top Hat in class. Here he explains, from his own experience, the many ways lecturers can help reduce textbook costs for their students—from tips on getting discounts to avoiding expensive bundles.
Find out for yourself the average cost of textbooks in your field, and what savings you can pass on to your students, with our Textbook Affordability Calculator.
If higher education is an investment in the future, it’s an expensive one. Students are facing significant financial barriers to completing their degrees, and textbooks are a significant expense. Almost all higher-education courses—especially in the first two years of study—rely on textbooks.
As an instructor, you have more power than you think over what students pay for their textbooks. While textbook prices can vary from institution to institution, the choices you make can affect cost. Here are some ways that you can help reduce textbook costs for your students.
Ask for the price list
Are there loose-leaf or digital versions available?
Reduce unnecessary content, reduce the price
Arm yourself with the markup information
Can your students buy used books?
And can your students sell the books afterwards?
Is renting an option?
Beware of the bundle—it can bump up the cost
Suggest direct ordering from the publisher
Do you know the prices that the publisher charges to the students, or to your institution’s bookstore? Although many institutions prohibit their instructors from negotiating directly with publishers’ representatives, you still should ask for the price list.
Don’t be shy about mentioning the competition’s prices. Name a price you would like to see.
Sometimes the sales representative can give you options that you can ask your bookstore to offer. For example, a loose-leaf version of the printed text is often significantly less expensive than the bound version.
Many textbooks also have electronic versions that cost substantially less. However, check whether access to the e-book expires after a pre-determined period of time—though this is another thing that you can negotiate with your textbook publisher’s representative.
Another format option is to consider a “custom” edition of the text. You may be able to reduce or remove from a textbook content that your students either do not need yet or that they are already learning elsewhere. For example, our nursing students at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee already study chemistry, so their anatomy book does not need a detailed introduction to chemistry.
The second place prices can be affected is in your institution’s bookstore. Find out what extra percentage markup it charges to students. Thirty percent of the publisher’s price is not unusual.
Although you cannot control this, you should be aware of the markup that students must pay.
If your campus bookstore sells used books, do they check whether used textbooks closely match the most recent edition?
For example, when you assign the eighth edition of a text, a student could probably use a textbook in the sixth or seventh edition; but not the fourth edition. Again, this is important information to have.
Be sure you know the buy-back options for your students. If they resell their books after your course, will the bookstore pay them a flat rate (say, half the original price), or will the offer depend on the condition of the book? Can you pick a book with a good buy-back option?
Does the bookstore have a rental program? If so, you should check the costs and policies, and recommend this to your students if appropriate.
Like digital books, rental means that students give up the option to have textbooks for reference in the future, but these could be replaced by other resources more specific to their needs in the future. (More here on the question of whether to rent vs buy textbooks.)
Watch out for the bundle. Publishers offer many “ancillary” materials, but they come at a price.
These materials claim to aid learning and to help instructors monitor student participation and performance, but they all add to the textbook costs. Yes, the bundled cost is much lower than the à-la-carte option, but it’s still more than the basic text.
For instance, we found that one textbook priced at $180 (for a 2-semester course) cost students $365 for the bundle plus mark-up.
Finally, check if your students can order their textbooks directly from the publisher. This obviously cuts out the bookstore markup, but some institutions do not allow faculty to offer this option to students.
In one of my graduate courses, a direct-buy option not only eliminated the 30 percent bookstore markup, but it also came with a direct-purchase discount.
The final price that students paid was close to half of the price listed in the university bookstore.
Reducing textbook costs, in conclusion
If students are opting out of the bundle, or not buying the textbook at all, then it really doesn’t matter how good the materials are. If you choose a textbook solution realistically within the reach of your students, you can guide their learning—and offer a valuable resource for reference and review as students continue their studies.
See how much money your students could save by switching to digital textbooks. Try our free Textbook Affordability Calculator right now.