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Students don't go by the book

High text costs prompt some to borrow, buy online or not buy at all

PITTSBURGH — University of Pittsburgh sophomore Kaitlyn Knoll got her books this fall the traditional way. She trekked to the campus store, gasped at the prices, then reluctantly forked over $450 for a semester's reading.

She understands why many of her peers gamble that they can do better by shopping online, borrowing books from a classmate, or — in a trend that worries educators — simply skipping the required text altogether.

"If there was any way I thought I could get by in the class without using the textbook, I wouldn't buy it either," said Knoll, 19, a pharmacy major from Shaler, Pa. "It's just so ridiculous."

Just one of her 10 books for the fall semester at Pitt is a chemistry hard-cover for $137.35. That doesn't count the recommended study guide for the book that costs at least $21 extra.

Claiming they can lessen the sticker shock, online services from Half.com to Wal-Mart tout savings of more than 50 percent on some titles. Those services have won converts, despite warnings by campus stores that books sold over the Internet don't always match the edition required in class, can take weeks for delivery and aren't easily traded in for cash.

But the debate over book-buying methods may soon be eclipsed by a more troubling question: What happens if more and more students, fed up with the prices, stop buying the textbooks altogether?

Last winter, the National Association of College Stores mounted a campaign on 18 campuses urging professors to insist that their students buy the book. The campaign was a response to the group's own surveys indicating 20 percent of undergraduates nationwide choose not to buy the text.

It's a figure that has been rising a percentage point a year, said Laura Nakoneczny, an association spokeswoman. She said the Oberlin, Ohio-based organization has heard from many professors who are worried that students will have a harder time keeping up.

"They manage by taking notes in class. They borrow the book from a classmate who has already taken the class before," she said. "Some of them make photocopies. Some use a similar book they get from the library."

Even though some students are saying "no" to textbooks, stores selling them are hardly going out of business. Sales of textbooks throughout North America are an $8-billion-a-year industry.

In the eyes of some students, everyone in it profits mightily, from professors writing books and publishers minting them to schools getting a 3 percent to 12 percent cut of sales from campus bookstore chains.

Bookstore managers insist it's not the gouge fest that some think, once everything from graphics to author research to marketing is tallied. "In all honesty, if we are selling a textbook for $10, our cost on that book can be anywhere from $8 to $9.50," said Rosemarie Slezak, director of Pitt's Campus Book Center.

Still, with the average price of a new college text hovering around $80, it's not hard to figure why students over the years have been drawn to off-campus discount stores and, more recently, to the Internet.

Bestbookbuys.com, one such service that culls prices from 21 online bookstores, points to three often-used college titles: "General Chemistry," "Calculus and Analytic Geometry" and "The Chicago Manual of Style."

The books collectively list for $282, the company says. As of last week, they were selling online for $227.36 new and $22.99 used — a savings of $54.64 (new) or $259.01 (used), the company says.

Online sales overall represent only a tiny fraction of the market, college stores say. And they contend that for each bargain found online or at an off-campus discount store, there are horror stories of students arriving for class with an obsolete text purchased from a retailer that didn't have access to a college's required reading list.