Why College Students Are Stealing Their Textbooks

Rather than pay the high prices, they're just illegally downloading them — even for their ethics classes! We tried ourselves to see how well the system works

College students have long complained about the ridiculously high cost of textbooks. But irritation over price gouging is now morphing into a kind of rebellion. A large chunk of students are done shelling out $100 apiece (or more) for textbooks they barely use, and they have no qualms about breaking the law to get the materials for free.

One student took to his Tumblr page last year to vent his frustration—and the massive reaction he got speaks volumes about students’ mindset on the issue. The blogger complained about the pressure to purchase an updated version of his “sadistic” professor’s sociology book. “I left with no option other than buying a piece of paper for over $200,” the student lamented, anonymously.

“This is why we download,” the student declared. He went on to list more than a dozen websites where readers can get textbooks for nothing (or next to nothing).

Prior to the Tumblr post from last September, it’s hard to find an actual conversation on Twitter, Facebook or the anonymous social app Whisper about illicitly downloading college textbooks. The post now has over 750,000 “interactions”—likes, comments and reblogs—and the list of sites the blogger circulated is still bouncing around Twitter. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of tweets about textbook pdfs was in the hundreds each year. Starting in late 2013, that amount spiked to thousands a month. (We reached out to the blogger, whose Tumblr page is “Children of the Stars,” but he hasn’t responded.)

The economics of college life are a mess. Students are not only hit with the high cost of textbooks—up more than 800 percent over the last 35 years—but they’re also dealing with constant tuition hikes and, on top of it all, an anemic job market. Thanks to bloggers like “Children of the Stars,” textbooks are now one area where students are starting to have a bit more financial control—even if it requires breaking the law. From New York University and Long Beach State to the University of Michigan and George Mason University, students are touting the joys of shaving several thousand dollars off their college bills.

We were curious how deep the selection of books is and how easy it is to download them, so we picked five typical freshman core courses, including Culture, Ethics and Economics at Barnard College, Humanities 1217 at the University of Wisconsin and Honors Philosophy 200 at Michigan State University. Working off the syllabi for these classes and others, we tried to download all our textbooks without paying a dime from the sites offered up by the “Children of the Stars” blogger.

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