Do College Students Still Need to Buy Their Own Printer?

As a student heading off to college, you’re making a list and checking it as many times as needed to ensure that you schlep the bare minimum amount of stuff into your diminutive dorm room. Some items — like a laptop and smartphone — are non-negotiable. (And besides, they don't take up that much space.) Even the best printers, on the other hand, can command a fair chunk of dorm room real estate, so it's tempting to leave that off your packing list, especially if there are other printing options available on campus.

Credit: Stokkete/

(Image credit: Stokkete/

Is a printer a must-have item for college students or an unnecessary luxury that's better off in your rear view mirror as you depart for college? Here are a few things to consider as you contemplate whether a printer should join you on your college journey.

What Does Your School Offer?

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Much of the decision about whether or not you take the printing plunge depends on school policy and facilities, space, your intended coursework, environmental concerns and the size of your budget.

"Assignments are submitted digitally, and printers take up a lot of space in small residence hall and apartment rooms." — Jana Lithgow, University of Illinois associate director of business career services

Policies vary from school to school, but the academics we talked to said a printer isn’t the must-have item it once was for college students. "Assignments are submitted digitally, and printers take up a lot of space in small residence hall and apartment rooms — and ink and paper are expensive," said Jana Lithgow, associate director of business career services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also pursuing a Ph.D. in education policy. "In fact, I just bought a printer last year, after going 10 years and completing two master's degrees without one."

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Only a small percentage of students really need printers in their rooms these days, said Michael J. Trivette, co-founder of the student counseling service College Transitions. "Many colleges offer printers in various computer labs, libraries, residential halls and other locations throughout campus," Trivette told Tom’s Guide. "Many times, colleges also allow students to have prepaid printing accounts tied to their student account, meaning they can easily print documents across campus by using their ID card and login information."

Indeed, at the University of Illinois, Lithgow said, there are enough print kiosks and traditional computer labs to meet the printing needs of most students.

But resources can differ widely, depending on the school you choose, what you're studying, whether your school encourages you to submit your assignments electronically and how you personally work."Colleges that offer 24-hour computer labs and multiple print stations across campus offer a significant advantage over colleges that offer fewer resources," Trivette said. "You can imagine how this difference might play out at a state flagship university versus your local community college, so much of this is contingent on the institution itself and the resources it provides."

Some majors like history, creative writing or psychology are inherently more document-intensive than others, tilting the scales toward a printer. And even if your area of study doesn't seem like it will require a lot of paperwork, most degree programs still require students to take English and other humanities courses that will involve written assignments. Students studying art and photography may be able to print most assignments in the lab, but perhaps you’ll want a printer around as you work into the wee hours. 

Your School's Attitude Toward Printing

Trivette said that some colleges are becoming more eco-friendly by offering students incentives to reduce their reliance on personal printers. For example, Reed College in Portland, Oregon, gives students a printing allotment at the beginning of each year, while Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, gives students a "print quota" at the beginning of each semester — about 400 double-sided pages. Other colleges offer a set amount of printer credits per semester. For most students, a library printer will do just fine.

"Many colleges offer printers in various computer labs, libraries, residential halls and other locations throughout campus." — Michael J. Trivette, College Transitions

"It's also important that students and families know that different institutions will have different policies as it relates to student printing," Trivette said. "For example, the School of Digital Media at the Savannah College of Art and Design requires that students bring their own paper when they want to print from the school's printers. This is due in large part to the demand for printing and the school's efforts to combat excessive waste."You should also think past that first year or two at college, as you move from a dorm room to off-campus housing. Depending on the location of your new digs, your access to campus printing services could change.

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"Students who live off campus may face more of a challenge when trying to print their own documents," Trivette said. "Having said that, many student residential communities also offer printers in computer labs. We suggest that students check on the resources provided by housing companies they may be reviewing when looking for off-campus housing." 

Printer Questions to Consider 

In most cases, then, it seems you're better off leaving that printer at home. "The colleges I have worked at and attended have all had print budgets that are included with tuition, so that students can print out the few things they need to at the printers in the computer labs or libraries," said Julia Cain, graduate assistant of student activities at Haverford College. That said, Cain has a printer of her own, even though she has access to the ones at her college.

"I do a lot of scanning and also weird things like printing on fabric or iron-on transfers, which require inkjet printing instead of laser, which is what most campus printers are," she added.

If any of the following apply to you, taking a printer to school may be the right choice.

  • You're going to need to print out assignments rather than submit them electronically.
  • Your school offers limited printing resources.
  • You anticipate needing to print documents at hours when school facilities might be closed.

So what criteria should you look at when considering a dorm room printer? Besides obvious factors like the printer's size — you'll want something that doesn't take up too much space — and the operating system your computer is running (Mac, Windows or Linux), here's what to consider. 

Canon's Pixma MG3620 is a low-cost inkjet printer that produces sharp-looking text.

Canon's Pixma MG3620 is a low-cost inkjet printer that produces sharp-looking text.

Laser vs. Inkjet: Laser printers use a toner cartridge, while inkjet printers rely on ink cartridges. If your coursework involves an astronomical amount of text-only assignments, consider a laser printer: they’re fast and the ink lasts and lasts.

If your courses involve a lower volume of printed material — or perhaps you are able to hand in most of your assignments electronically — an inkjet printer will suit your needs nicely. Newer models are fairly speedy and print very well.

Color vs. Monochrome: If your class assignments mostly involve printing text, there’s no reason to purchase a color printer. A black-and-white printer, whether inkjet or laser, will get the job done. However, if you will routinely be printing graphics, presentations or photos for your studies, then a color printer is more appropriate. (Note that color printers have separate black- and colored-ink cartridges that you may find yourself replacing at a rapid clip: Each one costs somewhat more than a latte, though typically they come in packs of four.) Because color laser prints tend to be more expensive than their inkjet counterparts, it's better to stick with inkjets if you need color.

Multifunction Printers: While it may seem like you'd just need a printer to output reports, you'd be smart to consider a device that also scans and copies documents and images. All-in-one printers add those features without adding too much size or cost, and scanning and copying are sure to come in handy in ways you can't anticipate. 

The HP Envy 5540 is the Tom's Guide pick for best overall printer — and it costs less than $100.

The HP Envy 5540 is the Tom's Guide pick for best overall printer — and it costs less than $100.

Wi-Fi or USB: If your dorm has a wireless network, getting a device that prints wirelessly would seem like a no-brainer. But first, check on your school's policy about wireless printers, as some schools restrict their use due to privacy concerns.

Many Wi-Fi-capable printers also come with a USB cable for hooking up to your computer. Be sure to buy a printer that packs a printer cable in the box, which saves you the hassle of having to add one later.

Cost: The good news: you can find a very capable printer for around $150 — and even less in some cases. And the bad news? Your costs don't end once you buy a printer, since you'll also need to consider the cost of replacement ink.

When Tom's Guide reviews printers, we take cost per page into account. To get a sense of how much a printer will cost you over time, simply look at the cost of replacement cartridges and divide that by the printer's promised output.

The Best Printer for College

Our choice for best budget inkjet printer — Canon's Pixma MG3620 — offers a lot for college students. Besides its $60 price tag, the Pixma MG3620 offers a fairly compact 17.7 x 12 x 6-inch design. Your papers will look sharp, and you can print documents wirelessly. The Pixma MG3620's cost per page is a little steep — 10.6 cents for black-and-white documents and 24 cents for color — but you can reduce those costs a little by opting for high-yield ink cartridges.

Canon Pixma MG3620

You can also get our top-rated printer, the HP Envy 5540, for less than $100. At 17.9 x 16.1 x 6.1 inches, this inkjet is a tad bulkier than the Pixma MG3620, but it delivers great performance and high-quality prints, particularly if you expect to print a lot of images. Its toner costs are also reasonable, and you can lower those even further by opting for HP's ink subscription plan.

HP Envy 5540
Jackie Dove

Jackie is an obsessive, insomniac tech writer and editor in northern California. A wildlife advocate, cat fan, and photo app fanatic, her specialties include cross-platform hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems. Formerly senior editor at Macworld and creativity editor at The Next Web, Jackie now writes for a variety of consumer tech publications.