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Buy the books

Lifestyle | Online sellers of textbooks are competing for the business of college students

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Every year students complain about the high cost of college textbooks, some of which they rarely use and are unable to unload at the end of a semester because the publishers put out new editions. A 2008 law requiring publishers to inform professors of the price of textbooks and unbundle books from related CDs and workbooks went into effect in July, but experts don't expect it to make much difference in the steadily increasing price of textbooks. Its biggest impact may be on professors and administrators who will have to select texts for their courses months in advance and fill out more paperwork.

Competition in this realm, as in others, is making a bigger difference than government directives. If students garner ISBN numbers and plug them into internet price comparison sites like bigwords.com, campusbooks.com, and bestbookbuys.com, they can find the cheapest prices on new and used textbooks.

Big online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble are trying to make sure they get a piece of the textbook pie. Amazon.com offers free "Prime" memberships to students, making shipping free on all Amazon orders. Barnes and Noble now rents textbooks through its online store, which also offers eTextbooks. Students can rent textbooks for varying lengths of time, but if they fail to return them or mark them up excessively, they are charged full price. Chegg.com brags that it is "#1 in textbook rentals" and displays a constantly changing meter at the top of its web page announcing how much its customers have saved.

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Checkboxing students

A study of the admissions patterns of 50 of America's top colleges and universities shows how hard it is to be admitted if you are poor and white. Russell K. Nieli analyzed research done by Princeton professors Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford. Their study found that most private colleges don't want to waste limited scholarship money on students who don't enhance the racial diversity of a campus: "Poor whites are apparently given little weight as enhancers of campus diversity, while poor non-whites count twice in the diversity tally, once as racial minorities and a second time as socio-economically deprived."

But Nieli says diversity concerns make up only part of the explanation for the poor admittance rate of qualified lower-income white students. Schools, he writes, are unwilling to accept students who might turn them down on financial grounds. A lower acceptance rate could lower the school's overall ranking by U.S. News & World Report and others.

But there's more. Apparently the elite colleges are biased against some red state/rural activities: Participation in Future Farmers of America, ROTC, and 4-H Clubs, especially at the leadership level, is the kiss of death for kids with Ivy-colored dreams.

By the millions

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76 million Americans ages 3 to adult were enrolled in school in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. More than half of all 3- and 4-year-olds were in school. Almost three-fourths of children in preschool and kindergarten attended full-day programs.

One in 20 students in 2006 was born outside the United States, but about one in four had at least one parent born outside the United States. Not surprisingly, the state with the largest number of students with a foreign-born parent was California. Other states with more than a quarter of students having at least one foreign-born parent included Nevada, Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, and Hawaii.

This school year there will be 56 million K-12 students (11 percent attending private schools) and-if the seniors stick with it-3.3 million who earn a diploma. All this schooling isn't cheap: In 2008 New York spent $17,173 per student; New Jersey wasn't far behind at $16,491. The average expenditure nationwide in 2008 was $10,259. The stats show little correlation between expenditure and student achievement; for example, Utah, which managed to spend only $5,765 per student, was in the middle of the pack.

Spending season

Good news and bad news exists for mothers hoping to adopt the back-to-school style trends that appeal to their daughters. About.com predicts that jeggings-a hybrid of jeans and leggings-will be popular among the school crowd. Many moms, however, might find themselves as candidates for TLC's What Not To Wear if they begin carpooling in the leg-hugging jeggings. Another trend might be more attractive. Plaid is back for both boys and girls. You might even find that your son would rather have a plaid messenger bag than a traditional backpack.

Back-to-school is one of the big shopping seasons of the year. The National Retail Federation conducted its annual survey and found that although parents are still cautious about spending money, back-to-school spending is likely to be big. The study predicted families would spend $21.4 billion for K-12 students and a whopping $45.8 billion for college students. Other surprises from the survey: Dads are expected to outspend moms and college men are expected to outspend college women-and not just on electronics.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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