Lightening the financial load

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September 9, 2008

8:52 PM

“I go sticky note crazy,” Allison Marocco ’11 said, laughing. Her study strategy is familiar to most students, but for Marocco, a good pad of sticky notes is a necessary alternative to scribbling in the margins. Rather than spend hundreds of dollars at the bookstore each semester, she simply borrows her books from the library.

“I’m just shocked that more people don’t do it,” Marocco said. “I would definitely recommend it; it saves a lot of money.”

Money is on every student’s mind these days, whether it’s gas prices, college loan payments or even just that midnight trip to Wawa. Textbook costs are the latest cause for concern.

According to a report released by the National Association of College Stores — the trade association of the college retail industry — the average amount annually spent per student on books is $702. While most students accept this expense as an inevitable sacrifice in their quest for academic success, a few dissenters are questioning the necessity of biannual trips to the College of William and Mary Bookstore.

For Marocco, who is paying for her own tuition and rent, taking advantage of the College’s free library resources makes perfect financial sense.

“I started using library books last semester,” she said. “I realized that a lot of the books were at the library, and I ended up saving over $300. This semester, I thought I would try it again. Whatever is not at Swem is usually at the public library.” Undergraduates may check out books from Earl Gregg Swem Library for one month, and then may renew them online or work with the librarians to get extensions.

Marocco acknowledges that there are a few disadvantages to using library books, but maintains that the money she saves is worth it.

“I know that one of my professors put the books on reserve, so I have to do my homework in the library, which is a little inconvenient,” she said. “Some people like to write a lot in their books and stuff, but I sacrifice that a little bit. Other than that, I don’t know why everyone wouldn’t do it. Rather than spend $400, I spend $9.50 on late fees.”

Freshmen in particular are experiencing sticker shock at the bookstore, but some are no less savvy when it comes to saving money than are older students. Kelsey Shultz ’12, who originally paid $223 for her introductory chemistry book, grins broadly when asked about how she saved money on books.

“I really was expecting it to be that expensive just because of talking to people, but it still kind of floored me, especially since we just use them for one semester,” Schultz said with wide eyes.

Luckily, Shultz realized that a friend of hers owned the same chemistry book she had just purchased. “When he found out that I was taking chemistry, he offered to let me borrow it since he wasn’t taking chemistry this semester,” Shultz said. “Because I kept the book in its plastic — and I recommend this to everyone in case something like this happens — I was able to return the book to the store and I saved over $200. I was so unbelievably excited. I was running around telling everyone.”

Students who prefer the convenience of owning their textbooks have less expensive buying options than the Bookstore. Some students buy them at online retailers such as Amazon, Half.com, swamptreebooks.com or abebooks.com.

Emily Sample ’11 prefers to order her textbooks online. “They are way cheaper online,” she said. “And you also help someone out when you buy them used.”

The major drawback to purchasing books online, however, is timing. Students have to consider shipping time and buy their books early if they want to have them by their first reading assignment.

Sample said that she has had no trouble with shipping time. “Half.com has a good rate of return and they tell you it will take two weeks to be delivered,” she said.

For those who don’t want to deal with the online shipping delay but don’t want to buy new books, buying books used from the College bookstore is another option.

At the end of the semester, students have the opportunity to sell their textbooks back to the store for a percentage of what they paid for them.

The store uses two different methods, retail buyback and wholesale buyback, to purchase books from students. Retail buyback, which depends on professors’ book orders for the following semester, gives students half the price they paid for the book, while wholesale buyback gives students a significantly smaller percentage.

Michael Van Audenhove ’11, a former employee at the bookstore, believes that professors have a great deal of influence on the amount of money students pay for textbooks. This semester, professors have until Oct. 15 to place their book orders for their spring classes. Books ordered by this date will be bought back from students at 50 percent of the list price and will be sold at the used price. If professors miss this deadline, books will be bought back for the lower percentage and sent to the wholesale distributor. This results in fewer used books available at the store for the spring semester.

“The more professors have their orders in, the more books the store can buy back and the more used books are available,” said Van Audenhove. “Part of the thing students need to do is to pressure their teachers to get their book orders in.”

Professor Ann Marie Stock, who teaches multiple Hispanic Studies courses in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, feels that most of her colleagues do their best to send in their book lists by the store’s deadline.

“I do understand that it’s really important for my students to sell [their textbooks] back,” Stock said. “I do think many of us are respectful of that deadline. Most of us are aware of the importance of getting those in early. It really behooves us to have our books in the bookstore on the first day, and the bookstore needs quite a bit of time to make that happen.”

Unlike students at many other colleges, according to Van Audenhove, most students at the College buy their books before classes start. He advises students to attend class before they buy their books and use the syllabus to determine whether or not a professor will actually use the texts he or she recommends for the course. “The other thing about going to class is, if there is a big book you don’t use every day, you can split it with someone,” Van Audenhove said.

The College bookstore has exclusive rights for buying and selling used textbooks on campus, but Van Audenhove proposes that students get books from each other, which would keep prices lower. “For books that are being used again, students could make money and save money by selling them to each other,” he said.

At the beginning of every semester, the class officers of either the freshman or sophomore class create a student-run book sale. Students selling books receive more than they would at the bookstore, while prices remain cheaper than those at the bookstore.

Some professors have also devised alternate textbook strategies to help lower their students’ expenses. Stock, who, having paid her own way through college, empathizes with students’ financial woes, intervened when a textbook she wanted for her Mapping Cuba freshman seminar would have cost her students $70.

“I remember that buying textbooks was pretty ominous, pretty pricey,” Stock said. “I was not comfortable asking students to pay that price for one book.”

After searching online for the best deal on used copies, Stock purchased a class set and is letting her students borrow them for the semester. She said that her students seem to love the book and that it has led to very productive discussions. “They are pleased that it’s one less book they had to buy — and parents are pleased as well, I think,” Stock said, laughing.

“I am very comfortable investing in my students and in William and Mary,” she said. “Probably the best investment a person can make is in education.”

For students still smarting from the blow of this semester’s textbook bill, that’s a comforting idea indeed.

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