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Are students held captive by rising textbook prices? How to cut the cost.

According to a review of the Bureau of Labor Statistics data by NBC, textbook prices have risen by 1,041 percent since 1977.

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    Ben Popken explains what's behind the rise in textbook prices, and how the economics behind school supplies will keep pushing prices higher
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Textbook prices have risen by 1,041 percent since 1977 according to NBC’s recent review of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. College Board suggested that college students budget anywhere between $1,200 and $1,350 for books and supplies in the 2014-2015 school year.

There’s no denying that textbooks are expensive. What can college students do to cut costs?

Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources, told NBC News that students are trapped in a vicious cycle.

“They’ve been able to keep raising prices because students are ‘captive consumers.’ They have to buy whatever books they’re assigned," she said.

Data compiled by National Public Radio in 2014 confirms that college textbook prices have been rising, but they point out another phenomenon – student spending has stayed relatively the same since 2002. That means the students may not be so captive after all.

As the NPR report points out, students are obtaining textbooks in increasingly diverse ways. The spread of the Internet has made it possible to rent textbooks, buy them used off a third-party site, or use social media to connect with a student trying to sell theirs.

Surprisingly, tech-savvy millennials seem to prefer print textbooks to e-books even as the Internet has become more readily available. A Fall 2014 Washington Post survey found that students spent an average of $320 for the semester to get 5.3 textbooks, 87 percent of which were print books.

One student quoted in the Post story said that complex texts like "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville are more easily digested when read in print format. “I can’t imagine reading Tocqueville or understanding him electronically,” the student said. “That would just be awful.”

Recommended:Opinion 6 ways parents can cut college costs

Don Kilburn, North American president for Pearson, the largest publisher in the world, told The Washington Post that the move to digital “doesn’t look like a revolution right now. It looks like an evolution, and it’s lumpy at best.”

Instead, students use sites like Amazon and Chegg.com to find used print books and buy or rent them for discounted prices.

But even then, students often still find themselves in a financial twist. A 2014 New York Times report said that more students were buying than renting. One college student told the Times, “with buying, you may get some money back.” Not the case with renting. But when students purchase books they can potentially sell them to someone and get some money back.

For students comfortable with digital texts, a 2015 New York Times article suggests another option.

“Open-source textbooks are created under an open license, so they can be downloaded free or printed at low cost; instructors can even rearrange the sequence of material, to suit their preference. There’s a movement to make faculty-written, peer-reviewed open-source textbooks available to professors and students, to help keep a lid on the cost of textbooks.”

According to CNN, the biggest group of adopters of online education resources are community colleges, which tend to have some of the highest books and supplies rates.

The New York Times gives several tips for obtaining college textbooks:

  • Compare prices at your college bookstore and online
  • If you’re short on cash, renting is probably the best option upfront
  • If you tend to be careless, think twice about renting
  • Always double-check the ISBN before purchasing
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