Last updated: February 20. 2013 2:53AM - 826 Views

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As a 2007 college graduate, Rebecca Bria knew how expensive textbooks could be, so she was prepared to shell out lots of money when she returned to school last May to earn a master's degree in communication arts.

Bria, a part-time graduate student at Marywood University in Scranton, has a partial scholarship, but it doesn't cover textbooks. She was facing a $180 bill for two books. Then she learned of a program that would allow her to rent her textbooks, instead of buying them.

I wasn't familiar with the fact you could rent books. When I found out, I was surprised, said Bria, a former Times Leader reporter.

That $180 bill was cut to $90. For someone (like me) working full time and putting themselves through school, she said, it's a tremendous cost savings.

Bria is among a growing number of students nationwide who are taking advantage of the cost savings provided by textbook rental programs, industry officials say.

The average full-time college student spends about $1,200 a year on books and supplies, according to the College Board, a nonprofit organization that promotes education.

Renting vs. buying

The amount saved by renting texts varies, but typically runs about 50 percent of the purchase price for a new book, industry officials say.

We have books that are almost $250; you can rent it for only $85, said Diane Morreale, bookstore manager at Misericordia University in Dallas Township, which began offering a rental program in 2009.

Textbook rentals started gaining popularity around 2008 in response to skyrocketing prices of textbooks, said Nicole Allen, a staff member for Student Public Interest Research Groups, a nonprofit organization that advocated for reforms to make textbooks more affordable.

It's really taken off, Allen said. Back when we started fighting to make textbooks affordable, only a handful of campuses had textbook rental programs.

Today many private companies offer rentals. Among the major players are: Chegg.com, Rentatext.com, Bookrenter.com, Campusbookrentals.com, Collegebookrenter.com and Amazon.com.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, and college campus bookstores, also have gotten into the textbook rental business.

Misericordia University operates its own rental program. Wilkes University and King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, have a rental program through their agreement with Barnes & Noble; Marywood University has a contract with Follett Higher Education Group.

Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke offered book rentals last semester, but had to cease the program this semester after the company it used went out of business, said Cheryl Baur, bookstore manager. It is looking for a new vendor and hopes to offer rentals again next semester.

E-text computer option

In addition to rentals, students have sought out other options to reduce costs, such as purchasing used books or buying e-texts – books that are downloaded to a computer. Book rentals remain the most popular alternative, several area bookstore managers said.

From the time we started three years ago, it's exploded, said John Chaump, manager of the joint Wilkes/King's bookstore operated by Barnes & Noble on South Main Street, Wilkes-Barre. It doubled from year one to two. This year it's running about 20 percent above last year.

Rentals are attractive to students because they guarantee them savings. Typically students who buy their books will sell them once the semester ends, but they often get only get a fraction of the original price. It takes away the risk factor of trying to sell it back at the end of the semester, Allen said. You hear stories of students selling back a $200 text for $5. Renting allows them to get all the savings up front.

Those savings can be substantial.

Joan Diehl, manager of the Follett Higher Education Group bookstore at Marywood, said the company estimates its rental program has saved students nationwide more than $300 million since 2010.

The increase in rentals, as well as competition from other textbook sellers, such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, has put a squeeze on the profit margins for college campus bookstores, managers said.

It takes a longer time to make a profit off a book that's going out to rent, Diehl said. It takes four consecutive terms to get the same profit as if we were to sell it outright.

Staying competitive

College bookstores were faced with little other choice but to join the market if they wanted to remain competitive, Chaump and other bookstore managers said. Students were looking for it, he said. When we didn't have a rental option they were going to (private sellers like) Chegg.

While renting is a great option, it's not always the best choice for students, the managers said. Some majors, particularly biology and history, use the same books for different classes, Morreale said. In those instances it would be cheaper to buy the book, new or used, rather than rent it twice.

And while most students will never need their books again, some, such as business majors, might want to keep them for reference for their jobs.

Students also need to take special care to ensure the book remains in good condition, though most companies permit students to highlight paragraphs and write notes, as long as it's not excessive.

The ability to rent books has certainly helped students, but advocates at Student Public Interest Research Groups remain concerned about the high cost of textbooks, Allen said. It has advocated for legislation that would help reduce the cost of textbooks, including a federal law enacted in July 2010 that requires publishers to advise professors of the cost of the book, Allen said.

While (rentals) have helped students, it's only a marginal solution. It doesn't solve the problem in the long run, Allen said. We need to focus on producing lower-cost textbooks. Students should not have to rent in order to afford them.

Bria said rental has been a perfect fit for her. Her only regret is the programs were not available when she was an undergraduate at Wilkes University.

You get all the advantages of a brand new book other than the fact you have to return it, she said. It's a great deal. I don't know why people didn't offer this years ago.

Tips to save

The cost of college textbooks has increased significantly over the past few years, but there are ways to save money, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups.

• Shop for used and new books online: Shopping online gives you greater selection, which usually means lower prices. Several websites provide cost comparisons, including: campusbooks.com; Bigwords.com and Allbookstores.com.

• Rent books on campus or online: This option is good if you don't want to keep the book. If you are taking a multi-semester course, it might be more economical to buy the book.

Popular rental sites: Chegg.com; Rentatext.com, Bookrenter.com and Campusbookrentals.com

• Swap or sell books to other students: Some colleges offer online classified ads in which fellow students sell their used books. Also, check out postings on Facebook or Craigslist.

• Buy e-textbook subscriptions: This option is good if you don't want to keep the book and don't mind reading on a computer screen. Also, consider that the subscriptions usually expire after 180 days. Some popular e-textbook sites are: Coursesmart.com; Barnesandnoble.com and Kno.com.

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