Hardcover college textbooks can cost up to $400, and many classes require multiple textbooks—which is why students are being forced to consider the merits of buying textbooks vs. renting them.
Textbooks have never been cheap, but since 2006, the cost of a textbook has increased by 73 percent, according to a report by non-profit Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG).
And going to class without the proper textbooks is like going for a run without proper running shoes. You might start off well, but you’ll quickly fall behind the pace and you risk hurting yourself.
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Many students see textbook costs as additional expenses they simply can’t afford. While some are using financial aid to fund the cost of textbooks, leaving them little to live on, many others are attempting to get by without buying the required reading material.
In PIRG’s 2014 report, ‘Fixing the Broken Textbook Market,’ two-thirds of students said they skipped buying or renting some of their required textbooks due to cost. Of those students, 94 percent recognized this would impact their grade in a course, but chose to do so anyway.
“Not only are students choosing not to purchase the materials they are assigned by their professor, but they are knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade to avoid paying for the textbook,” the report says.
Linda Williams, a professor of business management and administration at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., told NBC News that students who can’t afford textbooks (and try to cobble together content on their own) do poorly in the course. In some cases, they drop the class or even withdraw from school.
Aside from the risk of a lower grade, students are sometimes choosing courses (or how many courses they’ll take in a semester) based on textbook prices. In its ‘2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey,’ The Florida Distance Learning Consortium found that 25 percent of students hadn’t registered for a certain course because of textbook costs.
When buying textbooks vs. renting doesn’t make a difference
Of course, there’s an argument to be made for buying second-hand books or renting them. The problem is, some publishers of hardcover textbooks print new editions every year, so students buying older versions may have to make due with outdated course material. And they’re not necessarily a lot cheaper, anyway.
While a new college textbook might cost $400, a used version of that textbook could cost $300, according to Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. In a blog post, Perry says that while renting textbooks is a less expensive option, “rental costs per semester are running above $200 per new book and well above $100 per used textbook (and as high as $180).”
The rising cost of textbooks is unsustainable, argues Perry. And that means it’s not a matter of buying textbooks vs. renting: we need to look for other solutions, such as affordable online textbooks and learning materials that can be customized by professors — a seemingly small move that could make a big difference for students.