As a professor who remembers, sometimes with great pain, how financially difficult it often was to put myself through undergraduate and graduate school, and as someone who will be paying off student loans until long after my ability to actually work at my profession has begun to fade-I am acutely aware of the high cost of textbooks. I go to great lengths to select the less expensive though still excellent textbooks and supplemental monographs that will convey the course content and not-sometimes literally-take the food from my students’ tables. That’s why I have followed the development of textbook rentals, both online and in traditional bound formats. Still, over the past few semesters, I have noticed more and more students carrying around books with large stickers on them that proclaim their rented status.
But is textbook rental a good decision? Last year, I wrote about the new textbook rental businesses in my post “To Rent or Not to Rent: That is the Textbook Question.” Textbook rental was then and still is promoted as a lower-cost alternative to purchasing textbooks, which many argue are needlessly expensive. There are plenty of good reasons why textbooks cost more than regular books, though: smaller print runs mean that economies of scale come into play, the need for color and sophisticated graphic imagery in many books, etc. all increase costs that are passed on to the consumer. This led to the development of textbook rentals, either through campus bookstores or online. In 2010, The Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney site proclaimed that “students facing a hefty annual bill for books can save an average 30% to 50% by renting that required reading.” There are other reasons why textbook rental is considered the most beneficial solution to student textbook needs:
- Students argue that there is no reason to rent a textbook that you are in all likelihood never going to read or need again.
- Online textbook rental offers comparison shopping, the ease of shipping, can be done well before a student arrives on campus and eliminates the lost time spent waiting in line to buy books at the campus store.
- Renting digital textbooks means that your assigned texts are downloadable for instant access, eliminating the occasional problem of a school bookstore running out of required texts-not to mention the benefit of not having to carry round several 600-page volumes.
All in all, those are some pretty solid benefits to textbook rental.
Concerns about Textbook Rental
Yet despite all the benefits, some recent information is dampening the enthusiasm that followed the initial development of textbook rentals, and students are paying attention. Brigham Young University’s student-run online news website The Universe recently described textbook rental as “a guessing game.” Two days ago, the website bigwords.com, which “compares the best textbook stores at once finding the sweetest, cheapest textbooks on the planet,” released the results of its study on the cost of textbooks. They found that even though textbook rentals have skyrocketed, students actually save more money by purchasing their textbooks and selling them back when they are through with them. According to Kristen Frank in Louisiana State University’s The Daily Reveille,
Sales and rental data from January 2012 and buyback data from April to May 2012 were compared in the study. BIGWORDS.com researched 1,000 textbooks by search volume on its own website, and found that buying and selling textbooks instead of renting them saved an average of 95 percent, or $1,000 per school year for students. Jeff Sherwood, CEO of BIGWORDS.com, said he was surprised with the results of the study because renting a book looks like the cheapest option, but online retailers look at all prices instead of just one to determine the buying and selling rate.
Essentially, the argument is that many textbooks are actually cheaper to buy and sell back to campus bookstores. As About.com’s Kelci Lynn Lucier advised students on their College Life webpage, “If you buy a book for $100, and can sell it back for $75, that may be a better deal than renting it for $30. Try to view your textbook purchase versus rental choice as something that will happen over the entire semester, not just the first week of class.”
This is compelling information, the kind that reinforces my belief that students should regard their college costs as part of a larger investment in their lives and be very shrewd about that investment over the long term. I certainly get the attraction of textbook rental: last week, my mother forced me to haul a box of my old books out of her house. Some of them I had not seen in 20 years, when I was an undergraduate studying history. For the life of me I could not remember the contents of some of them, or even the courses for which I had to buy and read them. The reality is that while some of my courses were necessary for the purpose of developing a well-rounded body of knowledge-much of which has actually turned out to be pretty useful-once I had learned their contents, I no longer needed the books themselves. Why had I held onto them?
This is a question that gets to the heart of why some students may prefer to purchase and keep their college textbooks. For me, they were like old friends by the time I was done with them and I felt about them the same way that literary critic Anne Fadiman, daughter of literature giant Clifton Fadiman, has written about the way she and her husband feel about their books:
“They recorded the passage of real time, and because they reminded us of all the occasions on which they had been read and reread, they also reflected the passage of the preceding decades…We both invested in our books the kind of emotion most people reserve for their old love letters.” [Fadiman, Anne. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).]
For many of us, our textbooks are not just utilitarian tools briefly needed to meet a limited and pragmatic goal; rather, books represent the foundation of our own library of knowledge, to which we can refer throughout our lives for both the valuable information contained between their covers as well as provide us with glimpses of our past, of the people we were before and after we gained the grace of the new wisdom provided on those steady, reassuring pages.
I realize this is a luxury most students cannot afford. But the new evidence about the actual costs of textbook rental suggests that most students may not be able to afford to rent their textbooks, either. The best advice is that students should conduct careful research, balancing the initial cost of their textbooks with the potential financial return of selling them back, and make the best financial decision for their needs. It is possible that students will do better by renting some books and buying others.
But I fervently hope that all students have the experience of reading an assigned book that offers a life-changing perspective, and that they will allow that book to take up permanent residence in their hearts, minds, and bookshelves.