It’s no surprise that college is more expensive than ever, but campus-bound students and their parents may be able to expect a little relief in terms of their bookstore budget, thanks to the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Passed in 2008, the money-saving provisions are now in full effect. Among the law’s provisions is one that requires textbook publishers to give students the opportunity to buy books unbundled, meaning you could buy your textbook separately from other supplemental materials that may be shrink wrapped together with your textbook. The goal is for students to save money by only buying materials required by the professor.
But what are the loopholes, and will this legislation cost you cash if you need a workbook or digital passcode for internet access to software?
The Exceptions to the Rule
There are reasons why not all supplements are sold separately from your textbook (despite the new law). The legislation excludes third-party contracts and vital materials. For example, if you’re taking a math class where 90 percent of your coursework is available solely via your digital access code, your textbook is worthless without the accompanying code, so it’s considered “vital material.”
When Unbundling Helps Prices
Let’s say not much has changed between the current edition of a textbook and the previous one. Your professor says either edition will work for class. You find the older, used textbook for $20 online that would have cost you $100 new. However, your professor requires you have the new edition of the workbook that was previously part of a $150 bundle. You buy a used workbook separately for $20. You save $80 on your textbook. Plus, you save an additional $30 over the bundled textbook/workbook price. Total savings: $110.
When Unbundling Hurts Prices
If your professor requires you to use a digital code or workbook, the bundle price could work out better. For example, National Association of College Stores (NACS) Government Relations Director Richard Hershman points out that a smaller medium-sized publisher charges 90 percent of the full price of the bundle for each bundle component: textbook, workbook and digital code. Therefore if the bundle price was $100, you’d pay $180 for the textbook plus the digital code. If you need the workbook as well, you’d rack up a $270 bill. However, if you bought the bundle, you’d pay a total of $100 for everything.
Bottom Line for Textbook Savings
When it comes to textbook savings, you can never fail by contacting your professor before class starts. According to the NACS’s StudentWatch 2010 survey, over 20 percent of students surveyed said professors aren’t using all of their required course materials listed on their syllabus.
Here are the questions you should ask your professor:
- -Do I need the most recent edition of the textbook for class? If your professor says no, ask which editions will work. Sometimes there isn’t much of a difference between edition 9 and 11 – except larger savings by buying the older textbook.
- -Does your class utilize software CDs, digital pass codes, or workbooks? Ask any online seller, if the digital passcode has been utlilized. If it hasn’t, you may be able to get this supplement without paying extra for it.
- -Are there other books or supplements I’ll need later in the semester that I should look for used now? For instance, an English literature course may require books you could buy online or utilize a retailer’s coupon code. If you know what books you’ll need weeks in advance, you have time to comparison shop.
Future of Supplements
While the current law doesn’t fully protect students from high textbook prices and the pricing and packaging decisions of textbook publishers, it’s other provisions may help: professors will now clearly see the prices of the textbooks that the publishers market to them and colleges will be asked to provide the lists of required textbooks (and their prices) at registration time, so that students don’t unwittingly sign up for a class with exorbitant book costs. Hershman says, “growing awareness of textbook costs by professors could force change such as publishers offering discounted unbundled materials and more professors forgoing supplemental materials when not needed or more effectively using them in the classroom interaction in the supplement selection process.”
Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.