Textbooks and related course materials cost about $1,200 a year, according to the College Board. And the cost of new hard-copy textbooks continues to rise, according to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office. But new alternatives, such as renting books and downloading "open source" course documents, are helping to keep costs manageable.
The National Association of College Stores said purchases outpace rentals but rentals are gaining in popularity. In the most recent academic semester, more than a third of students rented at least one textbook — whether from the campus bookstore or from online options like Chegg.com or Amazon — up from about a quarter the year before, said Elizabeth Riddle, who heads campus research for the association. A small but growing proportion said they only rented textbooks.
"Students have more options than ever before," said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.
Some students say renting has potential downsides. For instance, with renting, you don't have a chance to recoup any of your money by reselling the volume when you no longer need it.
But others caution against betting on getting a lot of your money back by reselling your textbook. Often, new editions of textbooks render last year's version much less valuable. Another factor weighing on the resale value of used books is that many textbooks come with online supplements that require special access codes. But the codes are typically valid only for the initial purchaser. That means buyers of a used version might not be able to obtain the extra materials.
Renting digital textbooks is also an option. But right now, the economics of digital publishing mean that electronic texts can often be more expensive, said Dan Rosensweig, CEO of Chegg. The average e-textbook the site rents is 25 percent more expensive than its average rental. That will probably change as the transition from print to digital progresses.
Here are some questions about renting college textbooks:
How should I decide whether to rent or buy a textbook?
As with any purchase, you should shop around and compare prices, both at your campus bookstore and through online booksellers. If you're short on cash, renting is usually the cheapest option upfront, said Jeff Cohen, CEO of Campusbooks.com, an online price comparison service (a sort of Kayak for college textbooks). But the type of course you are taking also matters. If you are taking a multisemester course like physics, which is typically taught over at least two semesters, it could be cheaper to buy the book. Also, if a book is closely related to your intended career, you might want to own a copy for future reference.
You should look beyond your campus bookstore, although its location is likely convenient.
Are there any reasons not to rent?
If you tend to be careless, you might think twice about renting a hard copy because there could be fees for damage from stains. And as with any rental, you will want to make sure you return the book on time; otherwise, you could have to pay overdue fees or even end up paying the full purchase price, depending on how late the book is returned.
How can I be sure I'm renting or buying the right textbook?
Students should obtain the book's specific identification number, or ISBN. Colleges are supposed to list the number in their course catalogs, so students can obtain it at the time of registration.