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Renting vs. Buying. Which is better?

Cristina Chang

A look at what to expect from textbook renting services

This will be the first semester Michael Howard is renting textbooks. Howard, a fourth-year economics student from the University of Virginia and former marketing intern for, typically pays anywhere from $500 to $800 for his textbooks. Selling the books at the end of the quarter will give him about 20 percent of his money back. But this semester, he will be paying about $150 by renting his textbooks online.

Before, students could not get any money back until they sent their books back at the end of the semester, Howard said. But with rentals, he saves the money up front and can use the books all throughout the school year.

Textbook rentals have the potential to take away the risk of buying and selling textbooks, and the practice has been catching on in recent years. About 300 college campuses offered textbook rentals last year, and 1,500 will offer them this fall, said Charlie Schmidt, director of public relations for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), a non-profit that provides supplies and merchandise for member colleges.

Textbook rentals typically allow students to pay 33-50 percent of a textbook’s original price, Schmidt added, and rentals are a good option for introductory courses because they can be offered at cheaper prices, as the companies are given more security on how often the book is used.

Students who use textbook renting services save at least 50 percent off the original purchase price, with the ballpark savings estimate at 70 percent, said Nicole Allen, director of the Student Public Interest Group’s (PIRG) campaign on affordable textbooks.

Michael Geller, vice president of marketing for, compares book rentals to renting movies from Netflix.

“Book rentals allow you to choose what books you want, when you want it, and at a fraction of price in bookstore,” he said.

Book renting is catching on partly due to the Higher Education Opportunity Act, enacted in 2008, which mandated colleges and universities to disclose syllabus information, Geller said. This gave students more transparency on what textbooks to buy before they choose their courses, allowing them more time to price shop.

And by 2008, with a recession hitting the United States and textbook prices continuing to rise, textbook rental services saw their business grow exponentially, said Alan Martin, CEO of

Most textbook rental companies will offer titles for any college course, Martin said. Furthermore, students don’t have to worry about selling the book when they are done. However, Martin added that books that have been rented previously do not guarantee students a supplementary CD or a functioning online access code.

And students are not advised to rent their books if these are necessary for students’ major and may need be kept long term, Schmidt added. For instance, some calculus courses require the same book for two or three courses. Furthermore, the savings may not always be better than a buy-back or used textbook program, and students should do the math ahead of time.

Allen also advises students to check the policies of rental services to see how long they can keep the book and if it is acceptable to highlight or write in it, as companies can charge fines by billing the students’ credit cards.

Renting books may save students money, but “if a student wants to keep the books, it’s definitely not a good option,” Allen said.

What do you think? What’s better, renting or buying books? Share your opinions and experiences with your comments below!

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