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Textbooks: Why Buy Or Rent When You Can Borrow?

Hearing about California college students renting textbooks puzzles me. After living on a student's budget for six years, I know that there's a better answer. As a graduate student the last two years, I don't remember buying a single textbook after my first semester.

In college, I tried. Financial aid was more abundant, or at least I didn't fully understand how paying back all that money was really going to affect me. So, I bought all the books I was told to. Used if I could, new if not. Some classes recommended purchasing five or six books. No problem! Just throw it in the bag.

But graduate school changed me.

There, more than in college, the books that were required reading weren't particularly ones I wanted to read. And all of those monthly loan mailings detailing how much you were going to owe once you earned your degree served as a constant reminder that every meal could be cheaper, every expense smaller, every school supply neglected — at least temporarily.

During my first semester, a second-year student in my master's of public policy program casually mentioned that every book required for any class was also available for checkout in my school's library. Students could check them out for a few hours at a time — or even overnight — all for free.

That was it. I vowed never to buy a textbook again. And I didn't. It required some stealth maneuvering, however.

I was known to camp out in the library some evenings to get the book I needed. Classes as large as 70 students sometimes only had three copies of a particular book on reserve.

But I was in this to win. When times were really hard, I'd hide a book or two throughout the library. (I'm not afraid to admit that, and I'm sure my future alumni donations to my alma mater will make up for any distress caused librarians or fellow students).

Buying textbooks (or refusing to), or even renting them is just one example of what student life is all about. Of course, academics matter, but higher education is really about time management, budgeting and building interpersonal skills. It's about growing up.

And grown ups, or at least the ones I emulate, know how to be cheap when the need arises.

So, students renting textbooks might get a "B" in "College Thrift 101."

But not buying books at all? That's an "A+".

Sam Sanders is 2009-2010 NPR Kroc fellow.

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Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.