Renting College Textbooks – A Primer

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Brian O'Connell

By Brian O'Connell

January 23, 2019

College students have enough on their plate financially, even before they get to campus and have to shell out more cash for textbooks. At some colleges, the cost of textbooks exceeds the cost of tuition. Renting textbooks is an option for cutting the costs of college textbooks.

College Textbooks are Expensive

Price-wise, college textbooks cost a bundle.

Take the newest hard cover version of Principles of Economics, by N. Gregory Mankiw, which retails for $224.95 on (The e-book version can be had for just $130.99, although used book prices are also lower on the retail giant’s website.)

Student budget data from College Board shows that collegians spend about $1,300 annually on textbooks. Actual costs may be higher, since students don’t always buy textbooks from the campus bookstore.

Inflation data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demonstrates that college textbook costs have risen a whopping 812% since 1978, with textbook costs skyrocketing at 3.2 times the U.S. inflation rate.

Why are college textbooks so expensive?

A big part of the problem is that five primary textbook publishers – Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson Education, and Scholastic – dominate the market, controlling more than 80% of sales.

College Students are a Captive Market for Textbook Publishers

Another common criticism of the collegiate textbook market is its business model.

Unlike virtually all retail markets, the college textbook sector doesn’t connect the consumer (i.e., the student) directly to the publisher. Instead, a third party – the college professor – requires students to buy a specific textbook.

That means consumers have to purchase the books the professor tells them to buy, making it more difficult to shop around for price breaks for textbooks, as the publisher doesn’t have to price their products competitively.

For publishers, college students are a captive audience.

How to Get a Better Deal on College Textbooks

Where college students can get a better deal on textbooks is by renting them.

In renting a textbook, you’re taking much of the pricing pain out of the equation.

For example, collegians can rent the Principles of Economics for as low as $12.36 on This price is for Amazon Prime members, which costs $49 annually for students, and $99 per year for the general public.

Book rentals also make it easier to return the book, either on a digital book rental platform or in a physical book store.

And, if you believe the book has good uses beyond your semester-long academic experience, you always have the option of buying the book, much like an auto leasing consumer has the option of buying his or her vehicle once the lease is up.

Where to Rent a College Textbook

So where can you rent a textbook, and what’s your best ways to do so? Let’s take a deeper dive.

The primary online college textbook rental platforms are as follows –we’ve also listed the rental price for ‘The Principles of Economics” on each site:

  • – $12.36 ($34 for non-Amazon Prime members.)
  • – $34.78
  • – As low as $34, although the site aggregates sellers and offers various prices
  • – $47.99
  • CheapText.books – N/A
  • – $34.43

Tips before Renting

While it’s perfectly fine to start shopping around for a good college textbook rental, don’t hit the “rent now” button until you’re prepared to make the best decision that is unique to you. Start with these tips:

Are you sure you don’t want to buy the book? Book rentals have a time table – usually up to 128 days for most books, while some books can be rented for as short as 30 days. If you feel you’re the kind of college student who uses books to test theories or for ongoing reference purposes, you may want to buy the textbook instead of renting.

What does your course require? Some college courses ask you to keep a book for more than one semester. In that event, renting a book loses its luster. Make sure to ask your professor ahead of time if the book will be required or needed (even helpful) for more than one semester.

Save money on shorter-term rentals. Let’s face reality. Some college students only want the textbook to cram for exams or for help in writing a thesis or term paper. If that sounds like you, check to see if you can rent the book for a short period of time, like 30 or 60 days. You’ll get a solid price discount in doing so. You might also be able to borrow the textbook from the college library.

Be a repeat customer. Some college textbook rental sites offer repeat customers access to discounts and reward programs. Amazon, for example, offers free two-day shipping for students, while offers an “eWards” rewards program, which gives customers $1 for every three points earned using the site.

Check the details. College book rentals have their fair of fine print to examine, so don’t make a payment until you’ve checked the small details. For example, some book rentals may have high shipping fees.

Most also have late return penalties, too.

For instance, Amazon will automatically grant a late-returning book returner a 15-day extension if the textbook isn’t returned on the due date, for a fee. If the book still is not returned after the extension period passes, Amazon charges the renter the full purchase price of the book. Damage fees can apply, as well.

The Takeaway

For college students on a limited budget, renting textbooks makes a lot of sense.

After all, you still get the book you need, save a bundle in the process, and if you return the book on time, you leave the deal with no strings attached.

That’s a good deal and, given the skyrocketing prices of new textbooks, it’s a deal that more college students are likely to take.


A good place to start:

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