Make Textbooks Affordable: Recommendations to Faculty

How to Minimize Costs For Students
Last updated: 1/19/2017

1. Consider cost when selecting textbooks

Since professors are in charge of selecting textbooks, their choices determine how much students pay. Cost is just one of many factors that go into textbook adoptions, but following these guidelines could help reduce costs for students:

  • Use affordable alternatives. Consider alternatives to expensive textbooks, such as open textbooks, course packs, or online readings.  Also, consider using an older edition if it is appropriate. Used copies of previous editions cost significantly less than new books.
  • Submit textbook orders on time. This allows the bookstore to stock more cheaper, used books for students to purchase.
  • Adopt textbooks for as many terms as possible. Using the same book multiple times allows an efficient used book market to develop on campus, and it can even allow students to rent textbooks.  Check with your local bookstore for their requirements for rentals.
  • Use older editions whenever possible. Our research documents that publishers issue new editions unnecessarily every 3-4 years, which undermines the used book market.  Students can find used copies of previous editions for a fraction of the cost online, so consider assigning an older edition if there are no significant changes. 
  • Think carefully before assigning textbook bundles. Even if supplements seem low-cost or "free," students will likely have more trouble finding and selling the book used. Bundles with consumables like workbooks and pass-codes are especially costly, because used versions are almost impossible to find and the bundle has little resale value once the supplement is used.
  • Do the math before assigning e-books or custom books. Discounted retail prices don't always work out to savings. Before customizing to reduce costs, make sure the price is less than used copies of the standard edition.  For e-books, keep in mind that students won't be able to sell them back at the end of the semester.  In many cases, students can't even keep e-books for future reference!

2. Communicate with students before the semester starts

A great way to help students find the best deals is to let them know about their assignments as early as possible. When you get your class list, send an email with the title, author, edition and ISBN for each book. Also make sure to note whether any are optional and if using an older or unbundled edition is acceptable.

Tip: Make the search for used books simpler by setting up a textbook list for your class on Listmania or BookLinkPro.

3. Negotiate with publishers

Since faculty are in charge of selecting textbooks, they have economic leverage over publishers.  Even though the top concern is adopting the best book for a class, faculty can pressure publishers to lower prices or create better deals for students.

Example: In 2004, the UCLA math department negotiated a 25% price cut with Thomson Learning (now Cengage Learning).

Tips for negotiating with publishers:

  • The larger the book order, the more power you have.  Force publishers to compete by coordinating book adoptions with other instructors, or even departments at other schools.
  • Increase competition.  Inform your reps which other lower-cost titles you are considering.  Really turn up the heat by including an open textbook on the list.
  • Don't fall for publisher tricks. Publishers sometimes try to make custom editions or bundles seems like a good deal, but actually will end up costing students more. Consider what the publisher is getting out of the deal, and be sure to ask yourself how the price compares to used books and whether students will be able to sell it back at the end of the term.
  • Be persistent.  Faculty across the country are increasingly frustrated with high prices, so publisher reps are trained to mitigate affordability concerns.  Don't settle too soon!  Also, make sure to do the math before customizing a book to reduce the cost (see above). 

4. Tell your colleagues about affordable alternatives

There are dozens of open textbooks and other affordable alternatives currently available, but most faculty members haven't heard about them.  Our research shows that open textbooks can reduce costs 80% -- that's a total of $10,000 of savings for a 100-student class -- so we need your help to raise awareness.

Visit the Catalog of Open Textbooks, and spread the word to other professors, instructors or department chairs about open textbooks.