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High textbook prices pinch students’ pocketbooks

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As the fall semester hits high gear, college students in Ithaca and beyond struggle to save on textbook prices, which have reportedly risen 1,000 percent since 1977 — more than three times the rate of inflation, according to one source.

The sticker shock is especially felt by international students like Zul Batnasan. Batnasan, a Mongolian-born Ithaca College senior, couldn’t believe the nearly ten-fold increase in textbook prices after transferring from her native university to IC in 2012. Average yearly cost of books at Ithaca hover between $1,500 and $1,600 according to the school’s website.

Many freshmen end up paying full-price for books during their first semester, before they learn of “underground” discount book websites like Chegg and SlugBooks. Amazon student is popular as well, but Chegg and SlugBooks have the advantage of allowing students to compare different retailers.

At the Mongolian National University, where Batnasan spent one academic year, she spent only 30,000 tugriks (about $30 USD) on each book. Had she taken her freshman year courses at IC, Batnasan would have spent at least $450. She recalls that she had taken macroeconomics and microeconomics, general psychology and introductory philosophy courses at Mongolian National University.

          ITHACA COLLEGE TEXTBOOK COSTS BY SOURCE
Source CHEGG (*buy) CAMPUS STORE (*buy) CHEGG (*rent) CAMPUS STORE (*rent)
Philosophy 101 $131.49 $159.75 $55.99 N/A
Macroeconomics 101 N/A $96.00 N/A N/A
Psychology 101 $132.49 $193.75 $49.49 $111.40

Many students choose sites like Chegg because of their significantly lower prices and option to rent books.

This price gouging is not unique to private schools like Ithaca either. Binghamton University, just south of Ithaca and part of New York’s public university system (SUNY), will leave students’ wallets just as empty. According to their website, Batnasan would have paid a total of almost $700 if she had taken her courses at Binghamton University.

     BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY TEXTBOOKS BY SOURCE
Source CHEGG (*buy) CAMPUS STORE (*buy) CHEGG (*rent) CAMPUS STORE (*rent)
Philosophy 101 $42.48 $44.95 $19.98 $32.95
Macroeconomics 101 $101.48*** $202.75 N/A $170.90***
Psychology 101 $181.99 $241.20 $65.49 $156.80

While Chegg usually offers students lower prices, sometimes things as simple as the edition of the book can send its price skyrocketing. Students usually still prefer renting books because campus stores tend to offer a fraction of the price when they’re sold back. Books in the sciences tend to be the most expensive because their research changes often, and their content is very specialized.

But the frustration over high textbook prices isn’t unique to students. Asha Sanaker, general manager of Ithaca’s Buffalo Street Books, says she feels the pain of local students as well.

“When students don’t choose to buy brand new books through us I don’t blame them,” said Sanaker. “English professors are the worst…because they want the kids to read like a book every week.”

“If you’re talking about eight or nine books in a semester that are all 20 bucks…that’s a huge chunk of change. And that’s only one of your courses,” she added.

Because the niche nature of textbooks, students often have trouble reselling them, as campus stores usually offer to buy them back at a fraction of their original cost. Despite managing a bookstore, Sanaker says that “If I were a student at this point I would totally be [renting textbooks] right now. Because why wouldn’t you? I can attest to the fact that my entire college career… I held on to all of those books out of a deep affection for them, but ultimately, I never read them again.”

And while the cost of attending a private 4-year college as a whole has gone up in recent decades (almost $26,000 since 1974 according to College Board data), textbook prices in particular seem to be a particular hardship for a lot of students. Sanaker’s theory is that the college culture exists almost in its own universe. She elaborates, “Academia in general… exists outside of the confines of normal reality much of the time. So I think it’s really hard for people who make their life in academia to remember sometimes that there is in fact a… reality that people are living in.”

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