Dollars and Common Sense: Why Textbook Rentals Are Best for Gen Ed Courses

textbook rentals

Textbook rentals can save college students money, and that’s always desirable. The most significant drawback to text rentals, though, is (of course) that you can’t keep them once the courses for which they were purchased have ended.

Ordinarily, this isn’t a problem since many students won’t revisit the subject in their lifetimes—regardless of how much they might have enjoyed learning it. Plus, many textbooks will quickly become outdated and no longer of much use.

So, are textbook rentals really the best option for Gen Ed courses? Yes, most of the time, they are. We’ll tell you why.

General Education (Gen Ed) Courses

Gen Ed courses derive from a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences that espouses a belief that undergraduate college students should graduate with a well-rounded and broadly applicable education.

It’s not that these students shouldn’t have majors, minors, certificates, and other focuses. Rather, the idea is that all of their courses complement one another, even if it’s in abstract or loosely defined ways.

Books and the knowledge and insight they bring are things to treasure for sure. Still, most textbooks are also quite costly. A lot of students need to set priorities with their budgets. You just need to rent textbooks sometimes, and that’s OK.

Should You Ever Not Rent a Textbook

There easily could be Gen Ed courses that a student enjoys so much that she decides to major in one (or more) of those subjects. In this case, renting the textbooks might turn out not to have been the best idea.

Perhaps, though, the student will have some inkling beforehand that a course’s subject matter would appeal to her. In this case, she’d know not to rent the books for that particular course and could keep them for reference throughout her studies.

Even the most engaging textbooks become outdated quickly, though. That’s largely intentional on the part of publishers, who run a cycle of continuous textbook updates—every three years for most.

If you’re thinking of keeping your textbook as a reference source, we advise you to be sure it’s something you’ll use. After all, there are lots of books and websites explicitly developed to be reference sources.

Honestly, you might be better off just using one of those. In fact, many instructors add those to their textbook order as optional but  “recommended” books. It might be time for more students to take the recommendations and save on the required texts.

How Textbook Publishing Works Today

In a college subject like media studies, people will argue that the content changes so rapidly that textbooks need frequent updates. This way, presumably, students can enter the job market with the most current knowledge possible.

This isn’t the case for every subject, though. A lot of subject matter (and those who teach it) rely on the same essential information and teach the same principles year after year.

The implicit goal is to stay broadly current enough outside the classroom to consider how those principles apply in real life.

We think even media studies students would be better off reading, watching, or listening to the daily news to stay current, instead of using textbooks that are already archaic the day they’re published.

Sadly, the real reason textbooks are updated so often is that publishers need to battle the secondhand book trade or the open educational resources (OERs) many instructors have wisely adopted if those publishers are to remain financially solvent.

Not all instructors use OERs, though—not by a long shot—and, thus, the issue of textbook affordability remains the fraught compromise. Remember, though, the end goal is always student learning, no matter how it’s presented.

How Textbook Rentals Benefit Students

Textbooks are so expensive that students will seek all kinds of alternatives to spending the money or purchasing the books at all. This is especially the case if the book is a new edition, and discount textbooks are not available.

Here are some examples.

  • They’ll use earlier (often very outdated) versions of the book.
  • They’ll share books with classmates, which only gives them half the time with the book than they’d get if each had separate copies.
  • They’ll borrow someone’s book and photocopy the whole thing.
  • They’ll race to the campus library regularly to check out the one reserve copy of the textbook (if there even is one on reserve).
  • They’ll try to get through the course using online and other free information sources. This happens a lot with Gen Ed courses since students can be resentful and dismissive of the Gen Ed requirement in the first place.
  • They’ll sacrifice grades and meaningful learning if they don’t get enough time with the textbook.

How effective could the learning be when students are going to such extremes to cut their textbook costs?

Book rentals can reduce book costs enough to make them affordable for many more (though not all) students. Rentals have other benefits too, which include the following.

E-Book Options

Many rental textbooks come in digital, electronic versions as well as hard copy. These e-books are a green alternative to paper books, especially since so many older paper textbooks get discarded. E-books also save students the trouble of lugging the book around.

Timing and Availability

Sometimes students can’t get access to a course textbook even if they’re able to pay for it. With bookstores hedging their bets against non-buying students or fickle instructors, the limited number of books ordered sometimes have sold out by the time a student tries to buy one.

Rental books tend to be more plentiful in hard copy since repeat rentals cover a greater portion of the production costs over time. Plus, of course, there’s an indefinite supply of e-books to rent.

So, book rentals, especially when they’re e-books, help students who otherwise might fall behind early in the term if they don’t have the assigned textbook by that point.

Gen Ed Textbooks of the Future

Textbook rentals provide comparatively cheap textbooks for students. Are these the best option for the 2020s and beyond, though? What about the OERs mentioned above? What about the abundant and free or inexpensive information on websites—much of it of good quality?

If the goal of Gen Ed courses indeed is providing students with a broad and diverse world view, then shouldn’t they enjoy a degree of say in what and how they learn? The opportunity to build their own paths under the guidance of experienced and knowledgeable teachers?

These are questions we must ask ourselves as booksellers who must constantly ad to the various directions higher education is headed in these days. Be sure you keep reading our blog to find out where we go from here.