College seems to get more expensive every year, and the course textbooks are no exception. Fortunately for students facing sticker shock at the campus bookstore, renting textbooks has emerged as a viable alternative to buying. Websites have sprung up that cater exclusively to this rental market and can offer considerable savings. As with everything, however, there are always pros and cons to be weighed before springing for a decision.

Renting is Less Expensive

There are some exceptions, but the rule of thumb is that it is usually cheaper to rent a textbook than it is to buy it. The price of textbooks continues to soar and there is no indication that they will get cheaper, even with the advent of digital e-texts. Some students have found that they actually can’t afford to buy a textbook prior to the semester. Some texts cost hundreds of dollars, and you can’t always count on a copy to be available at the university library. Even if it is in the catalog, there may be a wait-list. Renting a text means a cheaper upfront cost and less likelihood of falling behind in the course.

You Might Need (or Want) to Keep the Book

On the other hand, it may make more sense to buy the book outright regardless of cost. If a textbook is assigned over multiple courses or semesters, the student can amortize this initial purchase. If the textbook is required for a course in the student’s major, buying it is also advisable. They are more likely to find yourself referring to the textbook after the course ends. After buying a textbook, one may also mark the text to reflect on and reinforce concepts learned in the course. This is particularly true of fields in which the information stays current. Doctors and nurses can refer to an anatomy textbook long after their courses have ended.

On College Textbooks: Rent or Buy?

Rent to Own

Students still uncertain whether to rent or buy can capitalize on an opportunity that some retailers offer which enables them to purchase the book at the end of the rental period. This offers flexibility. The student still receives the initial price break, but if they find that they want or need to mark the book, they have the freedom to do so if they intend to buy the book in the end. In nearly all cases, the retailer will apply the rental amount to the final price, but the student should make sure of this in advance.

Also, consider renting a used book if possible; the purchase price will remain lower than buying new.

Purchased Textbooks are No Longer Investments

Many students see textbooks as an investment. They assume that if they take care of their textbook that they can resell it to the campus bookstore with the final “cost” still cheaper than renting. Sadly, this is becoming less common. New textbooks increasingly include one-time use codes for online content. Once used, this code will not work for the purchasers of used texts, further diminishing its resale value.

While it remains true that students may find better deals reselling their course texts online, this takes longer and may not include shipping costs. This is another reason why some campus bookstores offer so little when buying back textbooks. They have a glut of new and used textbooks in their inventory with a guaranteed demand. Students moving away from campus may simply want to lighten their library as much as possible and are willing to sell low.


Rented textbooks are great for students on a budget, and convenient for general education courses that one never plans on returning to. But students have to return them at the end of the semester in order to avoid penalty fees, and they have be returned at or near the same good condition they were in before, which can be difficult or inconvenient to maintain. Ultimately the decision is up to the student, but digital textbooks and rental services appear to be the future of college study literature.

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