Saturday, August 1, 2009

Textbook Rentals - A Viable Option for Managing College Costs

While tuition, room and board comprise the bulk of expenses one will pay during the college years, families actually should be focusing on the total Cost of Attendance, otherwise known as the COA, which also includes miscellaneous personal expenses, the cost of traveling to and from school, and textbook purchases. With prices of textbooks rising faster than the rate of inflation, today’s students can expect to pay a few thousand dollars alone in class reading material by the time they graduate. The high price of textbooks has spawned an active used-book market, as students have discovered that a few dog-eared pages and some yellow highlighting are worth overlooking in order to keep textbook costs down.

Now another option has emerged: textbook rentals. The rental alternative is available through recent online start-up companies such as and, which claim to carry a selection of more than 2 million titles each. Some colleges have even begun their own on-campus programs.

The cited advantages to students in book rental programs are compelling. Companies quote discounts of 65 to 85 percent off the list price and books are either new or are generally in better condition than one would find on the used textbook shelf. Students can rent for the full term or semester, and may find that returns through pre-paid postage boxes, once the course is finished, make the process simpler than negotiating the re-sale of one’s textbooks at the bookstore.

However, before encouraging your student to rent textbooks, make sure you understand the potential drawbacks as well. Rental companies require students to return textbooks as soon as the course is completed, though may agree to a few day extension if arranged in advance. A 20 percent penalty is often assessed for a short delinquency period of about two weeks. After that, the student will be forced to pay the full list price and in essence buy the book as if it were new. So know your son or daughter! If procrastination, forgetfulness or the tendency to lose things are issues, renting may prove not to be a cost effective option.

The fact that rented books are generally in better condition than purchased used textbooks is no doubt due to each company’s policy of prohibiting doodling or writing in the margins. Limited highlighting is okay, but anything more will carry a similar penalty to the late return. The student will end up buying the book. Again, know your student.

Lastly, renting is only a viable option if there is no benefit to the student to keep a textbook past the end of the semester. For example, if building a personal library of books in one’s major is important, then renting makes little sense. So my best advice on textbooks: know the options, yet take into consideration your child’s needs and habits!

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