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Saving Money with Textbook Rentals: Easy as it Sounds?

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Spending several hundred dollars each semester on textbooks has become the norm. Some college students try to cut costs by purchasing used copies of their required textbooks; online textbook rental companies are also gaining popularity.

According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), approximately half of all major college and university bookstores across the country also started their own textbook rental programs this fall.

New Textbook Rental Programs on Campus Facing Problems

These campus textbook rental programs were eagerly anticipated by students in hopes of drastically cutting their textbook costs, but now that the fall semester is more than halfway over students are still complaining about high prices. Associated Press writer Christian Salazar discussed these problems in an article published November 6, 2010.

NACS says about 1,500 of its 3,000 members are running textbook rental programs this fall, and it’s been estimated that roughly five times more on-campus textbook rental programs were available this year than just one year ago. Additional NACS members are considering opening textbook rental programs, but many are apprehensive due to startup costs. Schools must accumulate inventory, invest in computer software to track the books being rented and possibly hire new staff.

The programs face other limitations in addition to startup costs. Textbook rental programs are dependent on the number of books available to rent. Charles Schmidt, an NACS spokesperson, claims that schools must rent a textbook about three times before they get a profit out of it. Textbook publishers are known for frequently publishing new editions of books—quickly outdating older versions. In 2008, the California State Auditor said that new editions of most textbooks were published nearly every four years and when a publisher changes an edition or persuades faculty to use a different one, the rental model won’t work.

Major Book Retailers are Behind Campus Textbook Rentals

Many of the on-campus textbook rental programs have started thanks to Follett Higher Education Group and Barnes and Noble, the largest book retailer in the United States. Follett operates over 800 college bookstores in the United States and Canada; Barnes and Noble operates over 600 college bookstores across the country.

A press release issued by Follett in January 2010 reported that the company planned to expand its textbook rental programs to more than 400 campuses for the 2010 academic year. Follett’s campus rental programs are known as Rent-a-Text.

In addition to the textbook rental programs at their campus bookstore locations, Barnes and Noble offers textbook rental options on the textbooks section of their main website.

Campus bookstores offering textbook rentals realize that they have plenty of competition. Chegg.com and CollegeBookRenter.com are just two of many online-only book rental alternatives that many students turn to. Given the threat of losing customers to other options, some colleges and universities have partnered with online rental company Bookrenter.com.

Textbook Publishers Market to Professors

Textbook publishers market their goods directly to college faculty. Many professors decide which books will become required reading for their classes without taking price into consideration and in most cases if the price of a just-released textbook is high, the price of renting it is high as well.

A new federal law which requires textbook publishers to provide professors with the price of textbooks as well as a list of what has actually been revised when new editions are released went into effect this year, but publishers do not face consequences if they do not comply.

Federal lawmakers also awarded up to $1 million each to 12 schools this fall to create textbook rental programs, many targeting low-income or first-generation immigrant college freshmen.

e-Book Readers and Digital Textbooks Not as Popular as Hoped

The Apple iPad and e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble nook have been promoted as alternatives to expensive hardback textbooks, but the American Publishers Association has found that 75 percent of students preferred print over digital versions of textbooks. Complaints have also been high cost of electronic versions of textbooks and limitations imposed by using them.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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