Downloading College Textbook Chapters Could Make College More Affordable

Only need to read two chapters in the $90 textbook? What if you could download each for $3.99?

The first quarter of my freshman year of college, I bought every book my professors listed as required reading—and it cost me over $800. A few weeks into classes, like many of my peers, I was dismayed to discover that despite spending all that money on entire texts, professors often only assigned two or three chapters from each book. That problem hasn't gone away. Students are still routinely expected to buy entire college textbooks that they only need a portion of. But now publishers are proposing an intriguing solution, and they're looking at iTunes as a model.

Publishers want to offer students the option to download electronic versions of single chapters, just like we download individual songs instead of an entire album. Depending on the company, they'd make chapters available either through an iPad app (which would necessitate purchasing an iPad, of course) or as PDFs which could be read on any laptop. It sounds like a good idea, but will this actually save students money? According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, if you want to buy a hard copy of their 10th edition Biology book, it's going to set you back $185. An entire iPad book from e-publisher Inkling runs you $129.99. But a single chapter of this same book from Inkling is just $3.99.

If you only need to read two or three chapters of a text, buying them individually is certainly the way to go. But if you don't already have a tablet or e-reader, don't really want one, and need to read most of a textbook, it might still make sense to just buy the hardback. After all, you can always sell it back to the campus bookstore at the end of the class and recoup some of your costs. You can't do that with an e-book.

Right now Inkling is still a pretty small venture. This fall they'll only offer 100 textbooks as e-books. But, as we keep shifting away from hardbacks and get used to downloading our books onto a device, this is a solution that has the potential to make the total cost of college much more affordable.

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