Should I Buy or Rent My College Textbooks?

by | May 28, 2022 | College Planning, Paying for College | 0 comments

You can’t “hit the books” without getting the books, but the choices for how to do so have expanded for undergraduate students (and, in many cases, so have the costs). Many of your undergraduate classes will require specific editions of pricey textbooks, and you may be wondering whether you should rent or buy in order to have the best experience and save a little cash.

Are Textbooks Really That Expensive?

Before we look into your options for getting books, it’s worth understanding why students are seeking out options in the first place. As Vox explored in a 2019 piece on the topic, “two-thirds of surveyed students had skipped buying or renting some of their required course materials because they couldn’t afford them.”

Obviously, it’s easier to do well in a class when you have consistent, ready access to the materials, so why would students risk sabotaging their grade? For many, it’s simply not a matter of choice. Textbook costs have risen 1000% (that’s not a typo) since the 1970s, and many scholarship and grant options don’t cover the costs of class materials even when they cover tuition. The College Board found an average cost of around $1,240 a year for books and supplies for the 2021-2022 school year.

To put it simply, textbooks are often a cost that’s out of reach for many students, and even those who can afford them may be looking for ways to cut the costs in order to have more room in the budget for other expenses.

The Benefits of Renting

Many campuses now offer the chance to rent your textbooks rather than buy them. This can be a great option, especially for books that you’re unlikely to refer back to (like for a class that isn’t in your major).

You won’t, of course, be able to sell your textbooks back at the end of the year, but those resale values are often far lower than students expect them to be. When new editions make your brand new book obsolete before the semester ends, you’ll be lucky to get even a small sliver of its original value on the resale market, and that doesn’t count the time it takes to manage the sales process if you do it independently.

Renting can be an excellent option because it gives you a clear, upfront cost that’s lower than buying, and you can more easily figure out how to fit it in the budget.

The Benefits of Buying

Buying your books can come with its own set of benefits. For one thing, they’re yours. You don’t have to worry about keeping them in pristine shape in order to return them at the end of the year. You can highlight, annotate, and dogear the pages all you want.

Another benefit of buying new textbooks directly from the school’s bookstore is that you can be sure you’re getting the correct materials with the most updated access codes. Many textbooks now come with supplemental online platforms (and some teachers require these access codes to submit assignments and take quizzes). Beware of buying used from an unvetted source because you may not end up with everything you need to succeed.

The Bottom Line: Do Your Research

The most important thing to remember when it comes to buying textbooks is that you should plan some time to research before making a decision. Most classes will have a supply list posted weeks in advance of the start date. Take a close look and see where you can cut expenses by renting or buying used. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you make a decision on a case-by-case basis:

  Is this a class where I would benefit from annotating and highlighting the textbook? (If yes, it may be better to own it.)

  Does this book have a digital access code? (If not, buying used might be a great option.)

  Is this a topic that’s likely to be updated soon? (If yes, buying new with the hope to resell might not work out.)

Don’t put off your textbook buying until the last minute or you’ll likely be stuck with fewer options. Putting some time and energy into figuring out the best options for each class can save you some serious money without sacrificing your access to materials. With careful planning, you can hit the books without taking a huge financial hit.


Compass Academics

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