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How much for that textbook? Five ways students can save on course books

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I've been doing double duty for the past two years.

Since January 2020, I've been a reporter with the Arizona Republic in Phoenix and then USA TODAY in San Diego. But during nights and weekends, I've pursued an online master's degree in business journalism from Arizona State University.

The courses have been challenging and have helped my career.

But one thing continues to befuddle me each semester.

Why does the ASU bookstore often charge so much more for textbooks than other book businesses?

Recently, I found that a digital book for my economics class that could be bought directly from the publisher cost about $42 less than the one from the ASU bookstore, which imposed a 32% markup that included a "digital delivery fee."

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The ASU Bookstore, like most campuses across America, has a huge market with nearly 58,000 ASU students, about 43% of the total student body, taking some online classes, according to The Republic. 

The bookstore's website says: "Your campus store works every angle to provide students with the best prices – from partnering with faculty to choose the most cost-efficient items – to offering used or rental books."

ASU contracts with another company to sell textbooks through its bookstore and "any commission or markup added has been negotiated and approved by ASU and varies greatly from institution to institution," a university spokesman said.

The College Board, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1900 to expand access to higher education, found that it costs an average of $1,298 a year for books and other course materials for a full-time student. The organization suggests buying used textbooks or renting them to save money.

Here are other tips I found to lower textbooks costs:

1. Avoid the campus bookstore

While some university bookstores operate as nonprofit businesses, that doesn't mean they are a charity.

The online site Money Crashers likens the campus bookstore to a convenience store, where it's fast and easy to purchase groceries but it's a lot more expensive than a supermarket.

But if you do use the campus bookstore, ask about a price match.

The ASU bookstore offers students a "textbook low price guarantee" that results in the difference in price if a customer finds a cheaper advertised price from a competitor within seven days of purchase. (Yes, I got my money back).

2. Order from publisher, discount sites,,, and all offer discount prices, according to Forbes. 

3. Check out Project Gutenberg

The site has a library of more than 60,000 free eBooks. 

4. Visit your local library

Money Crashers found that the Free Library of Philadelphia has more than 100 copies of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. It also has several copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

5. Talk to the professor, a website devoted to financial advice from talk show host Clark Howard, suggests getting advice from your professor after the first day of class about the class textbook. The site notes some college professors also are fed up with the high cost of books.

My economics professor said he too was baffled as to why the price of the e-textbook was so much higher through the ASU bookstore than the company.

But, he turned it into a teachable moment.

"We will talk about price discrimination towards the end of our course, which could be one way to analyze any price differences. This could be an interesting discussion," he wrote to me in an email. 

Have a tip on business, personal finance, or investigative stories? Reach the reporter at or 602-509-3613 or on Twitter @CraigHarrisUSAT