By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
As an undergraduate student at a very wealthy private college, I felt a sense of dissonance at times. I realized I was “poor” for my college when I heard that the Pell Grant that paid for much of my college education was only offered to a small percent of students on my campus!
My family was lower-middle class, secure but never rich. My dad has always worked an average of three jobs, and my mom, a part time job. Still, they created a college fund when I was a child, minimizing the loans I had to take in college — an aspect of my white privilege, given the racial disparities in parental college savings.
In undergrad, I worked about 18 hours a week to pay for rent and food while holding a full course load and maintaining involvement in multiple ministries.
Many other students have to work full time while in higher ed or work in more physically intense positions than my work-study library position, and alternative students may do this while taking classes part-time or later in life. (I am a big fan of taking school at your own pace, by the way.)
My BIPOC colleagues faced additional barriers to the economic challenges I faced as an undergrad.
It was a huge privilege to receive a private college education, and I’d like to pass on some tips and tricks to make school more affordable. Besides living off campus and cooking for myself, I learned how to find affordable textbooks.
The Prohibitive Price of Higher Ed
Zooming out for a moment: According to the Center for American Progress, “If [B]lack and Hispanic graduates earned each degree type at the same rate as their white peers, more than 1 million more would have earned a bachelor’s degree [from 2013-2015].”
The report continues, “Institutions need to examine whether their pricing and advising practices are disproportionately pushing students of certain races into particular majors. Increasingly, colleges are charging different prices depending on the department in which students take classes.”
This could increase isolation for students of color in those fields and impacts diversity in the workforce after graduation.
Addressing grant funding inequities at a federal and school level could be a step towards equity within higher education, increasing graduation rates for Black students in particular, though it will take time to bridge the gaps and will require extra attention during the current economic crisis.
Textbooks add a large expense on top of already expensive class fees. But what if you didn’t have to buy them?
If you request them early enough, you can score your books from your university’s library or through an interlibrary loan, from the collection of local libraries that share books amongst themselves. The public library might have the books if your college library doesn’t. And renewals will get you through most or all of the semester!
Library books are free to borrow. Public libraries will have a FAQ page detailing how to get a card, and colleges and universities use your ID card as a library card.
Sometimes you can also download textbooks from the library website as well, if you’re okay with digital versions on your laptop or tablet.
If the books you need are unavailable from the library, you could share texts with your classmates. You could pool your money and purchase it together, each choosing a day or two when you read it.
This method works better when you’re in-person with your peers and have a central location to read it or the ability to exchange it more easily between dorms, for example. In COVID or with distance learning, this might not work as easily, but I can attest that it’s still a valid option.
Where to Rent or Buy Textbooks
What’s the next cheapest? Where can you buy affordable textbooks? Actually, campus and online bookstores allow you to rent textbooks for a lower price than purchasing them. As with borrowed books, you have to keep these in good condition and can’t write in them, but colorful stickies and typed notes are your friends.
If it’s a book you want to keep, you can compare the discounted prices at campusbooks.com, which shows prices for places like AbeBooks, Amazon, and Chegg. It shows rental prices as well as purchase prices, and you can also choose used books or new ones.
Do your research before you purchase. I always compare to see what’s the cheapest, recognizing that the actual campus bookstore will likely not be it.
At the graduate level, professors will often provide some readings for the students, so if you’re a Master’s student like me or are pursuing your PhD, at least our articles are provided for free!
Though they haven’t offered the academic texts I’ve needed thus far, I still like to check if the library or Audible has read-aloud options, since hearing text out loud can often help me understand better than reading with my eyes.
This isn’t a price saver, but it is a free tip for those days when you’re too tired to focus: Voice readers are available for PDFs. These apps and extensions — some of which you likely already have, like Microsoft Edge or Adobe Acrobat Reader — can translate the written text to audio for you for the days your eyes aren’t making the connections.
The words are automated, so it’s less helpful than having a classmate read to you over the phone or listening to an audio version read by a human, but it can be a lifesaver when you need to get through the text before class!
Local Equity Seekers
For two years, Finom supported BIPOC students in Chicago by providing thrifted books at very low prices. Though the coffeeshop recently closed, the owner still encourages residents to “keep showing up for people.”
What local bookstores actively seek to level the playing field in your area? What other resources have helped you as you chased your education, diminishing barriers? Help connect current students by sharing them in the comments below or on your social media when you repost this article!