ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You're headed back to school, or your kids are. Don't forget the cost of textbooks when you start adding up the cost of education. In the academic year 2003-2004, students and their families spent more than $6 billion on new and used textbooks. Here to help us with the fine print on textbooks is Michelle Singletary, regular personal finance contributor to DAY TO DAY. Michelle, the average cost of textbooks for a college student - what would that be?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY reporting:

About $900 a year. And for some, much more than that. If you're in a technical field, it could be double that.

CHADWICK: Why are prices for textbooks so high?

SINGLETARY: One reason textbooks cost so much is that they're bundled with other kinds of materials like CD-ROMs that are sort of shrink-wrapped with the book.

CHADWICK: So you're not just buying the book, you're getting some other things as well. Still, it costs a lot of money.

SINGLETARY: It costs a lot of money. And I think it's an expense that a lot of people sort of almost forget about as they're planning the cost for college. But it's a real burden for a lot of students and their parents.

CHADWICK: Is there anything to do? Can you write your Congressman or Congresswoman? Or what do you do?

SINGLETARY: Definitely. There's many states across the country that are actually trying to attack this issue. They are looking at legislation or have already implemented some laws to help alleviate some of this high prices of books. For example, in the state of Connecticut, they have a law on the books now that professors actually have to know the price of the book and be provided with the price of the book before they assign it to their students.

Now you would think, don't they know the price? But I heard from a lot of professors who don't really know what the costs of the books - when they assign it for the students.

CHADWICK: What about used textbooks? I mean, I think that there's quite a market in that, isn't there?

SINGLETARY: There is, and that's an area where students should definitely look for cost savings. You can save anywhere from 50, 60, 70 percent off the cost of a new book. Now there's a trick to that. A, you want to try to get those books before you get to school. So you might want to go online, look and see if there's a syllabus or something that will outline the books that you need, and get them online before you get school. Wait till you get school, go right to the bookstore, get them before classes start.

Although, here's the caveat. Some professors will admittedly tell students at the first day of class that hey, this book is assigned, but I'm really not going to use it. And so you may want to wait until you get to the first day of classes and see what books the professors are going to actually use.

CHADWICK: But going online, that's a good idea because you could buy used versions of that book and have it shipped. And according to you then, just the general cost of these things overall, you'd save money even if you had next-day shipping.

SINGLETARY: That's right. There are a number of Web sites where you can go and search for used textbooks and try to save some money.

CHADWICK: And here's another tip you have: the international editions of textbooks? I didn't even know these existed.

SINGLETARY: That's right. The publishers often create international versions of the very same textbook with the very same content and sell them overseas. And students can get those books here in the U.S. and save sometimes as much as 90 percent off the U.S. retail price.

You can go to a Web site bestbookbuys.com and look for the international version. You want to be sure it's the exact same book. And for example the difference could be that the U.S. book is hardback and the international version is paperback, which could cost less, obviously. So that's how you get the savings.

CHADWICK: Michelle Singletary writes the syndicated column The Color Of Money. We will put up online some of her recommendations for where to go to get bargain textbooks as people are getting ready to head back to school. Michelle's our regular guest for discussions of personal finance. Michelle, thank you again.

SINGLETARY: You're so welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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