E-books, textbook rental services, and new laws could help students save money.

Textbook prices, which have nearly tripled in the past 20 years, may finally start to decline thanks to some new laws, technology, and upstart companies.

Undergraduates who take advantage of the new alternatives could easily slash their textbook costs in half this coming academic year. That means the typical student could save more than $300.

There are new laws that are being put in place where congressional negotiators spent closed door sessions hammering out bipartisan agreement on a proposal designed to rein in skyrocketing book prices.

The proposal requires publishers to provide more pricing information to professors who, in the past, often assigned books without knowing how much they would cost students.

In addition, the new law would require publishers to “unbundle” the increasingly common and expensive packages of textbooks, CD-ROMs, workbooks, and web tools so students could buy whatever part they need and not have to spring for the parts they don’t need.

Using e-books, students who don’t mind studying a computer screen instead of a paper-and-ink book have several free or low-cost options.

The growing number of free e-books archived on sites like Project Gutenberg (which has jumped to 28,000 from 5,000 free e-books since 2002) and 4-year-old Google Books is especially helpful for students assigned older, out-of-copyright books such as literary classics.

In addition, many students are accessing free texts from e-book sharing sites such as scribd.com and orbitme.org. But publishers charge that many of the sites are too much like the original Napster — allowing illegal sharing of copyrighted material. Such allegations led to the mid-July shutdown of oftextbooktorrents.com.

Those who want legal access to up-to-date e-textbooks can check outcoursesmart.com, the new e-book site created by a half dozen of the nation’s biggest textbook publishers.

Typically for 30 to 50 percent less than the sticker price of the print version, a student can download an e-book.

A year’s access to the online version of the single most popular introductory psychology textbook, David G. Myers’s “Psychology,” sells for $55 on Coursesmart. It retails new on Amazon for $83 (used print versions were available on Amazon for less than $60).

Coursesmart students can highlight and type notes on electronic copies of a book, copy small sections, and print out a few pages at a time, but they won’t get access to CD-ROMs or other extras, and don’t get to keep a book permanently because the files have digital expiration codes.

• Bob McDonnell is executive director of Arizona College Planners, L.L.C., a member of the College Planning Network, the National Association of College Funding Advisors and the National Association of College Acceptance Counselors. For questions, email Info@ArizonaCollegePlanners.com.


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