Up until about five years ago, college students accepted the inevitable: Along with tuition and room and board, they were going to have to come up with a few hundred dollars per semester for textbooks. It’s been a rising concern for parents and students, who are already burdened with some pretty exorbitant costs for college.

The cost of textbooks has increased faster than tuition, health care and housing prices, according to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In fact, prices for college textbooks are up 812 percent in the past 30 years, whereas college tuition and fees have risen 559 percent in the same amount of time.

The National Association of Colleges Stores reports that the average college students pays around $650 a year on books. Some students can pay much more, if they need to buy brand-new, large books, which can run anywhere from $150 to $300 each.

Just like the housing market, this “textbook bubble” is becoming unsustainable. The costs are just too high, especially when compared with the low-priced and free alternatives starting to emerge.

Buy, Borrow, Rent

Students have been dogging the purchase of new books for years. Instead, they opt to buy used copies where available, or borrow or buy another student’s book who took the class the prior semester. Some students split the cost between a group of classmates and buy only one book, and then copy what they need.

Some students prefer to cut the buy-a-book/sell-it-back routine and rent textbooks. Campus bookstores and sites such as Amazon.com and campusbooks.com help students rent used books, which they can return for a lower total cost than buying the book outright. In fact, according to Student Monitor, about 24 percent of students rented their texts in the spring of 2011, which was three times as many students who bought a digital textbook. In that same year, Google reported a 40 percent increase in searches for “cheap textbook rentals” and a 20 percent increase in searches for “textbook rentals,” insidehighered.com reported.

Why Haven’t Textbooks Gone All-Digital?

One alternative to the costly college textbook is the digital textbook. According to a Book Industry Study Group survey conducted last year, 88 percent of professors surveyed still prefer and assign printed textbooks, and around 32 percent make digital textbooks available as well. The data also says that more than half of students surveyed are more likely to bring a laptop to class than a printed book; however, these statistics are not turning into sales for digital textbooks.

Most students still prefer to use digital or paperless resources, but not necessarily purchase them. The idea is that digital content should be providing an additional educational element along with the text; however, most of the current digital texts are just PDF versions of the printed text. Because of this, many students simply pass along the PDFs to one another and use online backup to store the pages in the cloud for others’ use.

Interestingly, Google reported that searches for “kindle textbooks,” “nook textbooks,” and “ipad textbooks” are up, so even if students aren’t buying yet, they are looking into the idea of digital textbooks. According to Akademos, there has been a 300 percent increase in ebook purchases over the past three years, but ebooks still comprise only 5 percent of overall textbook sales.

Students Seek Alternatives

The main obstacle to offering inexpensive digital textbooks to students is that many publishers do not allow for the resale of an ebook. Once a license has been sold, it cannot be resold, so secondary sales of ebooks is nonexistent.

Book rentals, used book sales and ebook are still out-performing new book sales, and it looks like that trend will continue.

The trend is clear: New textbooks are too expensive, and students are seeking alternatives. College students are tech-savvy and thrifty. They know if they look hard enough or get creative enough, they can get what they need without having to pay a big price tag. If textbook publishers do not figure out a way to decrease pricing, they will end up going the way of encyclopedias when Wikipedia dropped on the scene.