As TB readies to leave the nest, I’m reflecting on what useful advice I can give him.  I’m thinking in terms of “news you can use,” rather than moralizing lectures. And I want to focus on something that he might actually absorb, rather than brushing off as the obsolete or irrelevant pronouncements of a middle-aged Dad.

I landed on college bookstores.

The rules of engagement with college bookstores seem obvious to those of us who work in higher ed, but if you take a step back and think about them, they’re kind of odd. You walk in with your class schedule, and you take it on faith that the bookstore ordered the correct stuff.  

Most consumer goods don’t work like that. The closest might be pharmacies, where you give them a prescription and they charge you a random amount. (I’ve had one prescription for years, and in the dozens of times I’ve had it refilled at the same pharmacy, I’ve never been charged the same amount twice. I’ve come to think of it as a game show: “Name That Price!”) You assume that there’s some rationality in the system somewhere, but honestly, it’s hard to tell.

Still, in the spirit of avoiding charges of opportunity hoarding by confining my shopping tips to my kid, here are a few I recommend to anybody.

First, understand that most college bookstores under-order as a matter of policy.  That’s not a shot at bookstores; it’s just a fact of business. They do that because if you have, say, 100 students enrolled in a given course, maybe 80 will buy the book there.  (I’m picking a number; your mileage may vary.) The others will be comprised of students who skipped the book, students who bought the book from other places, students who share books, and the like.  It’s similar to airlines selling more tickets for a given flight than there are seats on the flight; they’re banking on some percentage not showing up. The bookstore doesn’t want to be stuck with mass quantities of unsold stuff, so it guesstimates based on past experience.

As a student, that means that if you have the option economically, it’s probably a good idea to pick up your books relatively early.  If they’ve ordered 80 for the class of 100, and you’re student number 82, you’re out of luck until the next batch comes in. That can put you at a disadvantage academically.  If you wait, you’re taking the chance that you’ll get in under the wire.  

Second, books that don’t come with software codes can often be found from other sources more cheaply.  The ISBN number is your friend, as is the camera on your phone. Various online booksellers aren’t that hard to find, and if you go early enough to have time to wait for shipping, you can often save money.  Again, the key here is not to wait until the last minute. 

Third, many college bookstores now have rental options. That can make a lot of sense for books for courses that you’re taking only to fulfill a requirement.  That said, the least expensive option, when it’s available, is to buy a used book and sell it back at the end of the semester.  If you do that, make sure to sell it back quickly; if the course changes editions or volumes in a subsequent semester, your used book may suddenly become dead weight. (That applies to new books, too.)

Fourth, in some cases, subscription options are available. These can be good deals for students in the sciences, where books tend to be more expensive. It’s worth asking.

Fifth, sometimes it’s possible to find out in advance which professors or sections use Open Educational Resources. Any time you have the option of picking the OER section, take it. Not only will you save money, but you’re more likely to get the benefit of a professor who went the extra mile to help students. It’s not a perfect barometer, but it’s a better-than-random indicator that this professor is particularly engaged in the course. When professors have helped curate, assemble, or even create the material themselves, they’re invested in it.  In my observation, faculty passion for a subject is contagious. Give me a passionate professor with pretty-good OER over a dutiful one with a solid commercial book any day of the week.

Finally, many campuses have an informal economy in used books. These can be the old-school paper fliers with little tear-offs on the bottom, or the social media versions thereof, or, sometimes, student-run co-ops. As with the online options, the key is to get your info early enough that you have time to investigate the other options. 

Whether he’ll take any of this to heart, I don’t know.  But I feel duty-bound to try.

Wise and worldly readers, what bookstore tips would you give a new student?

Inside Higher Ed