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College Rankings

A Better Deal on Pricey Textbooks

Question: If a college student spends $100 per book per course and takes five courses per semester, how much will the student spend over four years?

Answer: Way too much.

Soon, your student may get a break on those out-of-sight textbook costs. As of July 1, colleges are required by law to post required course materials, with retail prices and ISBN numbers, for each class listed on their online course schedule. Publishers are also required to sell textbooks and supplementary materials, such as study guides and CDs, separately rather than in a package.

As a result, students will have more time to look for deals, and they won't be forced to spring for nonessential materials simply because they come with the textbook. They can also vote with their feet if, say, one professor requires pricey new books and another permits students to use older, cheaper editions.

Language in the new law says that colleges must post course-material information "to the maximum extent possible," which gives professors some leeway to make last-minute changes. And it is likely too late to help your student this semester: Most institutions posted their preregistration schedules months before the law took effect. Still, colleges and universities should be ready for the next preregistration go-round, says Richard Hershman, of the National Association of College Stores. "Colleges have been working for a year and a half to get into compliance."

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Many college bookstores already provide pricing details at least several weeks in advance and have launched their own cost-cutting programs. The choice was once between new and used books, says Hershman, but "now it's a choice of new, used, rental or e-book." For students, that spells savings: A textbook that runs $100 new might cost $75 used, $45 as a rental and $50 to $65 in digital form. (See more ways to save on books in all these formats.)