story by Kim Souza
College students on average are racking up thousands of dollars in debt thanks to escalating tuition and textbook prices as they return to class over the next week. But several organizations said those costs can be reduced by renting textbooks instead of buying them.
The National Association of College Stores said students spent an average of $662 on textbooks last year, up slightly from $655 the prior year. That cost could easily run students more than $1,000 annually, as one textbook can cost $300, but more students have begun renting their books for a lower cost than buying, said Charles Schmidt, corporate spokesman for the NACS, trade group.
His organization estimates students saved more than $450 million in textbook costs last year because they chose to rent the books. He said renting is not new and neither is the competition college bookstores get from online services like eBay, Amazon, Chegg or Direct Textbook. He said the number of college stores offering textbook rental over the past four years as skyrocketed from only 300 in the fall 2009 to roughly 3,000 today.
“Such print-version rental programs can save a student between 45% – 65% off the price of a new print textbook, and is often less expensive than digital formats,” Schmidt said.
Debbie Miller, a recent graduate student at John Brown University, used the textbook rental program when the online book she ordered from Amazon did not arrive before classes began. Miller said she found the business textbook from a third-party seller on Amazon’s site and ordered what she thought was a “great deal” nearly two weeks before classes started.
When classes began, the book had not arrived so she rented the textbook from the college store.
Miller said when the textbook arrived from the third party seller, it was a photocopied version of the textbook she had rented, which was stamped “For sale only in Bangladesh” as an economy edition. She contacted the seller to say she was not satisfied with the book and was offered a free study guide, but no return option. After contacting Amazon, Miller said the third-party seller agreed to refund her money and told her to keep the book.
“I didn’t feel right about using a copied version and renting the textbook was a great option for me in this instance. I particularly like the fact that renters are allowed to highlight in the books, with no penalty,” Miller said.
Schmidt said piracy does occur in the textbook business, which is another reason why buying or renting locally is a good idea.
He said consumers think there are huge savings from ordering online, but many college bookstores around the country have instituted priced-matching, free shipping, guaranteed buyback and custom-published products that can provide values for the consumer.
“Stores also are investing in price comparison software, demonstrating how price-competitive they are with outside, for-profit companies,” he said.
Direct Texbook is a third party search engine that helps students compare prices between more than 200 reputable vendors.
"Direct Textbook is a completely free way for students to find the lowest-priced textbooks, compare special offers and coupons, sign up for textbook price alert notifications, sell their textbooks for a good price and even get cash back," said Morgan MacArthur, chief technology officer for Direct Textbook. "We're thrilled to have helped more than 20 million parents and students save millions of dollars on textbooks to-date, and we look forward to continuing to help make college more affordable for everyone."
MacArthur said students can save anywhere from 20% to 70% when they order online.
Schmidt said many college bookstores now offer online ordering as well and some report sales are up among certain income demographics. He said the cost of textbooks are high, but the idea that college bookstores have padded margins is not the case. He adds that local stores often provide jobs for students and local transactions have a positive impact on sales tax collections.
Roughly one-fifth of a textbook's price goes to the store where it is sold to cover personnel and operating costs, while more than three-quarters goes straight to the publisher, according to a report from U.S. News & World Report.
Both groups cited in the story agree the costs for college textbooks continues to escalate, rising 812% in the past decade, outpacing the rise in medical care and college tuition up 575% and 559%, respectively, according to U.S. Census data. They also agree that renting provides the most upfront savings and students should take advantage of price comparisons and price matching programs between local and online services.