Archive for the ‘ Cash-Strapped College ’ Category

Who’s Screwing Whom? – The Great Textbook / Bookstore Debate

As we’re in the midst of back-to-school rush, I’m reading some interesting industry-related articles and posts. While many are the standard “how to save on college, dorm decor, food, textbooks, etc.,” types of writings, a few more-detailed (and more honest and daring) posts have caught my attention. I wanted to take a moment to share them with you.


The New Republic, “How College Bookstores Are Killing College Bookstores”
In this post, Mark Athitakis explores how the college bookstore has gone from being dependent on selling textbooks to a vendor of anything but — namely a services outpost selling everything but textbooks.

Luke Thomas, “The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story”
This is a firsthand account of a student trying to purchase books and the hassles and hurdles and confrontations he and his wife faced trying to do so without breaking the bank. It’s a real-life account of the cruel world of academic book-buying, and it isn’t pretty.

And of course, something from the vault . . .
The Textbook Guru, “Why Can’t I Buy My Books Anywhere But The Bookstore?”
My take on the bookstore’s attempt to move to custom publications and the negative impact on students.
Part 1:
Part 2:

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 2

The other day I started a rant, i mean blog, on custom textbooks. If you didn’t read part 1, here it is. As we look forward we pick up speaking about custom and its growth. Please enjoy.

The custom model is not new and actual numbers are difficult to determine as nobody produces a list of all the custom ISBN numbers and the related main editions (the unmodified text and original ISBN). Thus, it is nearly impossible for any third party to index all the ISBNs that are associated with the main core text, which is actually kind of scary. I mean, publishers and bookstores are terrified of so-called pirated editions yet they are creating something that isn’t so very different in that it’s a variation of an original for which there are repercussions. Sure, the copyright is legit, but a custom edition has about as much buyback value as a pirated scanned PDF of the core text, which is to say, likely none and it cannot be sold through most channels.

As the world of custom grows, so do the players in the space. Flat World Knowledge has taken a big step in this world with the MIYO (make it yourself) model. In this model, the professor is given one of the core texts in the Flat World Knowledge catalog. From there, the professor can add custom notes, videos, and other features to make the book a unique and relevant edition. The student can then access the book for free online, pay for one of two online access subscriptions, or upgrade to a printed version. While these offer significant upfront savings, such books have no value at the end of the course.

The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!

The kings of the custom model are for-profit schools who realized early that if they worked directly with publishers, they could create a direct profit channel with 100% sell-through. It seems to me that we should be working to determine how to lower costs and provide a better product, not fighting change and forcing students to purchase books through a single channel and leaving students with a valueless product come end of term.

At this point there’s not much students can do. My advice: If you find that your book is a custom edition, try asking the professor if other books are acceptable for the course or just how much the custom edition differs from the main text. Try going to the bookstore and looking at the cover, title, and author, then do a search online. Or even try to find a student who took the exact same course with the same prof last term and go with a grassroots buy if the custom edition hasn’t changed. Any of this will require a bit more effort but the savings could be substantial.

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 1

As back-to-school time gets closer and closer, many students will seek the ISBNs of the books they need for classes. This generation of college students has grown up with Internet shopping and they have been well trained to understand barcodes and SKUs and ISBNs and other retail codes that identify product.

But to the shock of many of these well-informed students, they will not be able to buy certain books anywhere except the school bookstore, no matter how accurately they record or scan an ISBN and how many places they try to shop it. No, they’re not crazy, they’re just in a bind. For many years, publishers and bookstores have been pushing customized editions as such format (even if modified only on a single page) increases sell-through for both parties by creating exclusive product sold through an exclusive channel. Both publishers and bookstore managers will argue that it lowers the cost for students . . . but does it?

The easy answer is to agree and say yes, yes it does. I mean, if a publisher looks at a $175 list-new print textbook, the company (in collaboration with a specific professor and institution) can produce a slightly modified custom edition and sell it for $145. This book will have a unique ISBN and be relevant only to the course and school for which it was specifically produced. So the discount is a nice savings and theoretically the student is paying for what s/he needs and not what s/he does not need. In many cases, this is how the argument is made to the professor and it is how the idea for customized content is sold.

The issue is the bigger picture. Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc. In addition to a student being unable to purchase a custom publication anywhere but the official university bookstore, s/he can’t sell it back anywhere, including the bookstore most times! The best the student can hope for is a peer-to-peer transaction if another student on campus is taking the exact same course with the exact same professor and the book hasn’t been modified again. Bottom line: without custom, the student has the competitive world of the Internet to both buy and sell a book with a globally recognized ISBN. In the custom world, the student is forced to buy this book at the bookstore for the full retail price (however discounted based upon customization) and hope that the stars align and the bookstore or another student on campus is using that exact same customized edition next semester. Spoiler alert: not likely given that it all hinges on professors using the exact same material AND submitting adoptions before buyback.

Check back in later this week for part 2 on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But The Bookstore!

Ask the Guru – A Letter From Mom on Buying Textbooks for Her Son

I recently received this inquiry from a parent looking to help her son.

“I’m looking to purchase, lease, or rent books for my son who is in New Jersey but I live in Georgia. My husband and I will put the books on our credit card but how much confusion is this going to cause when we want them sent to him? How long will it take for him to get his books and can he get a discount for good grades? He just graduated from with a degree in Addiction Counseling, now he is re-enrolled in another major so as to increase his employment options. What if he keeps the books longer than it says, will he be penalized? What if he finds a cheaper price, will you match it? What if we can send you more books we have or come across? What if he doesn’t know what books he needs until the last minute, can he get them in time for the start of school?” And so on from a very well-intentioned mom overwhelmed by changes in her son’s life and a process about which she knows little and one that is very different from her time in school.

So many times when blogging as a long-time industry insider, one can forget to write about the basics as it seems old hat or redundant. Writers can forget that they are the experts and that basic is relative and not everyone shares the writer’s interests or experience. That said, I want to take a step back, get back to basics, and break this inquiry down to provide answers. Sure, I could reply to the mom who wrote me with questions, but chances are that she’s not the only one who would benefit from the answers. So let’s put it out there for everyone.

Issue: “I’m looking to purchase, lease, or rent books for my son who is in New Jersey but I live in Georgia. My husband and I will put the books on our credit card but how much confusion is this going to cause when we want them sent to our son?”
Guru response: Since most online merchants can handle a situation where the billing address and the shipping address are different, you shouldn’t run into any snags. It is possible, if you order several of your books from a single merchant, that they may contact you to verify the purchase.

Issue: “How long will it take for my son to get his books and can he get a discount for good grades?”
Guru response: When purchasing books online, delivery can take as few as 3-5 days or as many as 7-21. Since this is a big difference, let me explain. First, you have to determine if you are buying from a retailer or a marketplace. Sites such as Amazon (for used books) and are marketplace sites. This means that they are listing product that is being sold by others and shipping is out of their hands. In some of these cases, the seller can ship the book via Media Mail, which can take 7-21 day (from shipping) to be received. Other cases such as buying a book from Chegg or direct indicates you are getting the book directly from the merchant and the delivery time can take 4-6 days. Read the details, note the source (including geographic location), choose delivery method wisely. As for the second question: No online merchants offer discounts for good grades but many offer coupons. Use a site like (full disclosure: I work for and you can see active coupons for all merchants.

Issue: “What if my son keeps the books longer than it says, will he be penalized?”
Guru response: If you are not sure how long books are needed (or your son is perhaps prone to procrastination or losing things), you may consider buying instead of renting. Most rental programs have a process by which you can extend the rental term or purchase the book, but there is of course a fee. Each process is different and costs vary. Check the renter’s website for details.

Issue: “What if he finds a cheaper price, will you match it?”
Guru response: I am not a bookseller, rather an advisor. The site that I recommend,, is not a bookseller but a price-comparison search tool. Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen any bookseller sites that match prices unless you are buying new books. My suggestion is that you do your research and pay attention. Sometimes books get more expensive as you get closer to school start dates, not cheaper though because as good used books are sold, they can’t be replaced and supply becomes limited.

Issue: “What if we can send you more books we have or come across?”
Guru response: Any book you have may have what is called buyback value. I suggest you use a buyback price-comparison engine (again, can help) or contact a local bookstore to determine if the books have any value.

Issue: “What if he doesn’t know what books he needs until the last minute, can he get them in time for the start of school?”
Guru response: This is a very common question. If the book is needed quickly, purchase from a source that offers expedited shipping. Another option is to purchase from a source that instantly delivers a digital copy (or the first chapter) when you rent a book and are waiting for it to arrive. If you are buying books the first week of school, time is of the essence.

I know that many of my readers are also industry insiders so I encourage you to share your thoughts on any of the questions posted.

Have another question for the Textbook Guru?  Just ask!

20MM and Kno Launch Open Source eTextbook

Electronic textbooks and open source content have been hot topics in education recently as students, teachers and administrators get excited over these game changing technologies. Now, thanks to 20 Million Minds and Kno, we are seeing the two meet in a commercially viable model for the first time. The two companies have joined forces to launch the nation’s first web 2.0, open source eTextbook  for college students.

20MM plans to produce open source etextbooks for the top 25 courses taken by undergraduates in the nation, with general statistics being one of the largest of these courses. Looking just at California community colleges, over 120,000 students take general statistics every year, and with an average new book price of over $150, these students collectively spend over $10 million per year on books for this single course.

Now they can turn to Kno, where they can get a free PDF of Collaborative Statistics, 2nd Eddition, written by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, faculty members at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Kno also offers an enhanced version of the text, which allows you to use all the features Kno offers on it’s other titles, for $20 for the semester. “The reason that I am involved in this project is taht I believe this enhanced version goes well beyond that of a flat PDF to increase student learning. WE already have a free textbook. Now I want to improve the learning experience by offering students what I consider a Web 2.0 experience,” said Illowsky.

This kind of partnership between for-profit companies like Kno and non-profits like 20MM may be just what we’ve been waiting for to take open source textbooks to the next level. “This new offerin is designed for college students to improve their learning experience, results and significantly lower the textbook cost,” said Dean Florez, President of 20MM Foundation. “This digitally enhanced etextbook provides a vision of what is now possible for a new generation of open content and authors.”

With such a promising partnership, and 24 more open source etextbooks planned, it’s an exciting time for cash-strapped undergrads everywhere. Florez predicts “massive adoption by faculty by spring 2012,” a lofty goal but whether it catches on this spring or next, there’s no doubt this is a threat for many publishers and a game changer for college students.

14 Smart Savings Tips for College Students

This is a guest post from Andrea Woroch, consumer & money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc, who’s appeared on Good Morning America, NBC’s Today, the New York Times and more. She shares some tips for college students!

When most people think of college students, Ramen noodles, dirty laundry and all-night partying come to mind. It’s not that students desire this lifestyle; it’s simply that these are necessities, (except for the partying, of course). If you’re tired of struggling and scraping by at school, try a few of these savings tips.

1. Take Your ID Everywhere
Having a student ID is like owning a key to the city. It grants semi-exclusive access to all kinds of discounts and deals. Whether you’re going to the movies, the museum, or just out for a bite to eat, be sure you have your student ID on hand. You never know when and where it’ll save you some cash.

2. Get a Student Bank Account
Most major banks offer some kind of student account. While you’ll earn little to no interest with these accounts, they don’t have the fees and minimum balances of other accounts. It’s also a smart way to start building some credit history.

3. Rent Textbooks or Buy Used

It’s incredibly frustrating when the cashier rings up all of your textbooks and the price tag is half that of your semester’s tuition. Instead of shopping at the campus bookstore, rent textbooks or buy them used online. Check for the best deals at which collects and compares prices from Chegg, & Amazon. At the end of the year, you can sell those books back for a bit of cash.

4. Find a Job
We all play the sympathy card with parents, but let’s get real for a minute. Working 15 hours a week combined with a full class schedule  isn’t going to send you spiraling into academic failure. On-campus jobs are ideal because they’re usually simple and accommodating of school schedules. If you can sneak some homework in while on the clock, even better. To start your search, try looking into these five part-time jobs.

5. Coupons Can be Cool
With all the coupon books handed out on campus, using them won’t give you a cheapskate stigma. If you can’t find the discount you need, there are plenty of online coupons and even mobile coupons to choose from. Continue reading

Five Last-Chance Summer Destinations for Cash-Strapped Students

For some students, the end of summer is drawing ominously near, internships will be ending in a few weeks, and it’s time to plan a week-long vacation before going back to the busy jumble of activities that is the new school year. The problem with this is the fact that vacationing is a luxury for anyone right now, let alone broke, penny-pinching college students. This is why I’ve compiled a list of 5 fun and affordable summer vacation destinations for college students to see you out this Friday!

1.    Los Angeles, California: While at first, Los Angeles may bring to mind a city of affluence because of places like Beverly Hills, it’s not all like that. Los Angeles has great little beach areas like Venice, downtown Santa Monica, and Hermosa Beach. There are plenty of inexpensive places to stay like the Best Western in Santa Monica, which is a short drive from places like The Getty, which offers free admission.  There are also plenty of tourist attractions in Los Angeles, like Grauman’s Chinese Theater and The Walk of Fame, which can be fun for those of you who are interested in old Hollywood.

2.    Tulum, Mexico: Tulum is near Cancun, but it’s far less expensive. It has interesting things to see, like Mayan ruins. If you feel like some relaxation between visits to the Mayan site and partying in nearby Cancun, you can relax on the gorgeous beaches. Mexico is generally much cheaper than the US, so savings during the trip itself make up for money spent on plane tickets.  There are inexpensive places to stay in Tulum, such as Posada Dos  Ceibas.


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Seven Ways to Hack College with Apps and Online Tools

You have your laptop to take notes, e-mail to keep up with assignments, and Facebook to distract yourself from assignments.  But what about nontraditional uses of technology to enhance the college experience? Here are some of my top suggestions for Student 2.0.

  1. Grades

Grades 2 is an application for iPhone, iPod, and iPad users that makes tracking your progress simple.  You enter the classes you’re taking, fill in all your semester assignments and relative weights, and then feed the app your grades as the course progresses.  Grades 2 will then average the scores and tell you your current grade, GPA, due dates, sub-grades, etc.  Unfortunately, the app won’t be able to inform you whether or not it’s worth it to sleep through your boring 8 A.M lecture –even so, this is a free application that could save you some of that end-of-semester panic.

  1. Books

If you’re looking to save money and stress on textbooks, avoid the crammed, under-stocked campus bookstore and go online, obviously, online retailers like can help you buy, rent, or sell textbooks back. And it’s not just for buying: when you’re done, selling books back online will also help you recoup your losses and avoid getting ripped off at the bookstore.

Don’t forget to explore resources like open-source and free books, like at Flat World Knowledge and other sites as an alternative to textbooks.

  1. Studying

As enjoyable as 3 A.M cram sessions in the library can be, there are a host of tech services to help improve the efficiency of your studying.  Companies like Evernote, StudyBlue, and Cramberry are online flashcard-storage services that let you create a digital note card stack which can then be synced with a smartphone and studied on the go: in line at Starbucks, at the gym, even–radical as it sounds—in the library.

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The Trouble with Course Readers

Many professors, especially those teaching article-heavy classes in the social sciences, skip textbooks entirely, opting to offer course readers instead. Course readers mix together articles, notes and textbook clippings that are directly related to the course. They are updated frequently and cost about $30 to around $80, which compared to the price of a new textbook is cheap–though they can go up above a hundred depending on the course. They are specifically designed for that course, usually by professors, which reduces the cost of wasted, unread pages.

The Stanford Flipside blog has a graphic opinion on course reader prices

Looking from that standpoint, readers seem like an easy, cheap and smart alternative to textbooks. Unfortunately, readers come with as many flaws as they do perks. The largest flaw? They can’t be resold. Textbook retailers are uninterested, and while you might get a few bucks from a future student, but course readers can change each year.

Another very simple flaw is that most of the information in readers can be found online, more often than not, for free. The cost of course readers comes from printing costs, but more than that, reprint fees that professors pay in order to reproduce the article or page in print. But when many news sites have free archives online, and most schools offer some sort of academic journal collection free for students, it’s a tough sell. Couldn’t students just click links for free?
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Top Five Part-time Jobs for Students

Since I’ve been posting so much about the heavy industry-side, here’s a little break for student readers. These jobs are the most convenient and can make the most money while taking up the least time!

  1. On Campus Job—Bookstore or Library

An on campus position is the most ideal part-time job for a student. It’s convenient in proximity, and the stores tend to be more lenient when it comes to scheduling and letting you do homework or study on the job (always a plus around finals).

On-campus jobs tend to have little perks, too. It’s different for each book store, but at the University of Washington Bookstore, for example, there is a program that subsidizes your bus pass (which in a city like Seattle definitely comes in handy), and the pay is awesome (nine to nine fifty an hour). At the University of Arizona Book Store, they have a “loan a textbook” program, which essentially gives the working student free books for their semester. On top of all the extra benefits, you get valuable “real world” experience.

  1. Bartender/Server

Bartending and serving aren’t necessarily the easiest of jobs, not to mention the fact that they aren’t always “part-time,” exactly. But Infobarrel has a good rundown of three reasons to work as a bartender and/or server: friends/social interaction, convenience, and last, but definitely not least, money.

While serving, especially at a bar, chances are you won’t completely miss out on the fun because your friends will socialize where you work. Restaurants and bars, depending on the type, are typically generous to second hand priorities.

Most people who work in the food industry have other obligations—so the schedule is pretty relaxed. If you work at a bar your shifts will typically be at night—so you’ll never have to miss a class! People are usually pretty generous when it comes to switching shifts as well; everyone is just trying to make some money!

Lastly, servers and bartenders might not make the best hourly wages—but what they lack in salary they make up for in tips. A server/bartender can walk away from a nights work from anywhere in between $80-500 depending on how sophisticated their place of work is. If you work three times a week that’s at least $240 in extra spending money!

One thing Infobarrel didn’t mention was the experience required to serve or bartend. Any profession one goes into afterwards can be benefitted from a solid training in people skills, patience, multi-tasking and hard work–all of the things tested as a server.

  1. Residence advisor (RA)

Free room and board? Having your own room? And living in the perfect location? What’s better than that? Nothing! That’s why being a resident advisor (RA) is so great while in college. You save money, and there’s nothing better than free food. The benefits are outrageous—not to mention the amazing experience and leadership skills you’ll gain. It’s a well-rounded job for any college student.

  1. Nannying/babysitting

We can’t condone any illegal action—you should always consult with your employers—but most of the time nannying or babysitting, especially if done sparingly, can slide by tax-free. Don’t know anyone with kids? With plenty of websites to help the nanny/babysitter find work, finding a position is never hard. Companies like nannies4hire, sitter city, care4hire, also give background checks so you know that you are being put in good hands! While the good money is probably the biggest perk, some would say getting the chance to be a kid again is up there too!

  1. Internship

For those overachievers who already know what they want to do, (just kidding!) an internship is the perfect opportunity. It not only gives you the experience you need for your professional life, but it’s a great resume builder. If it’s not paid, or giving you a stipend, then it’s accepted as college credit. Either way you are killing two birds with one stone. It’s a great way to interact with people in your field of interest, and gain the knowledge you need to be successful once you reach your big graduation day!

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