Site lets college students find low-price textbooks, quickly

Students paid an average of $1,100 for books and supplies last academic year.

Students’ hours-long web searches for cheap textbooks might be over., a site launched this spring, lets college students search many of the most popular websites – including, and Amazon — for low-cost textbooks in one easy step: Plugging in a class schedule.

Once the student enters his or her courses for the coming semester, SwoopThat generates a list of every book needed for each class, along with every online textbook service that offers those textbooks at a discount. SwoopThat, which searches more than 15 million textbooks, has matched books to courses at 380 colleges, universities, and private schools.

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Three 2010 graduates of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. are among the founders of SwoopThat, and Jonathan Simkin, the company’s CEO, said understanding the financial sting of textbook prices has helped SwoopThat programmers build a student-friendly site.

“I felt that pain a lot,” said Simkin, who graduated from Harvey Mudd with an engineering degree. “I definitely remember how it feels to have to look for [alternatives] to the campus bookstore.”

Finding textbooks for as much as half off the listing price, Simkin said, was always time-consuming. He said it took up to five hours at the start of every semester to visit low-cost textbook websites and search, one book at a time, for the web’s best deals.

Using SwoopThat, a student can find cheap books for every one of their classes in 10 minutes, saving up to 75 percent, he said.

“What we want to do is open up the market for students and increase price transparency,” Simkin said. “We don’t care about making the maximum amount of money necessarily; we just want to make a change in the market and give students another option.”

College students spent an average of more than $1,100 for textbooks and supplies during the 2010-11 academic years, according to the College Board, a nonprofit that tracks educational statistics.

Community college students pay textbook and supply costs of up to 72 percent of their total tuition costs, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

“These high costs affect taxpayers, parents, professors, and students,” said Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a network of college student advocacy groups.

As textbook prices have risen over the past decade, many students have resorted to using federal student loans to pay for books before each semester, Allen said. And professors have seen students simply go without vital textbooks for an entire semester because they can’t afford the high costs of new books.

Student PIRGs, in April, announced a national “textbook rebellion” aimed at raising awareness of escalating book prices and their impact on students’ wallets and educational quality.

Student PIRGs officials plan to rally students nationwide in the coming months through social media campaigns, campus visits, and petition drives that could grab the attention of college administrators who might not be aware of just how expensive textbooks have become.

The “textbook rebellion” organizers will also advocate for more open source textbook options. These books are published online with an open license, meaning they’re free to students.

Allen said that even with the proliferation of low-cost textbook sites like Chegg and BookRenter, many college students continue to buy their books for full price at the campus bookstore.

“There is still a long way to go before students know they can take advantage of these options,” she said. “I think lawmakers are paying attention, but this isn’t something we can solve through legislation. You can’t pass a bill making textbooks affordable. … It’s a market-based problem and the solutions have to come from the market.”

Simkin said skyrocketing textbook sticker prices most affect freshmen and sophomores who don’t consider their options before purchasing their pile of books for each class. College seniors, Simkin said, often have the hang of it, after paying full price for three years.

“It really is a shame,” he said. “You see a lot of seniors who have finally figured it out, but there’s not really much in the way of educating students about where they can find cheaper books.”

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