DALLAS – You can rent an apartment, a car or a DVD. Now add college textbooks to the list expensive items that people are renting because they are short on cash or looking for a better deal.
Students at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas can lease some textbooks through their campus bookstore, while others can find deals through a growing number of online rental sites _ think Netflix for English lit and calculus.
Meanwhile, a few professors and colleges are experimenting with free online textbooks.
There’s good reason for the demand. College students can expect to shell out more than $1,000 on textbooks over the academic year, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. While that’s still a fraction of tuition and fees, the high cost prompts plenty of gripes.
“It comes to a point where you feel like you have to take out a separate loan just for your textbooks,” said Branden Scott, a sophomore at UNT.
Scott rented a $70 textbook for his English class through UNT’s bookstore. The price for a semester-long rental: about $25.
“I was in a rush to get my textbooks for the cheapest prices I could,” he said.
UNT and UTA were among seven colleges nationally to offer textbook rentals this fall through their bookstores, which are managed by Follett Higher Education Group. This month, the program will expand to 22 colleges across the country.
In general, a $100 new textbook rents for $42.50 per semester. Students must be at least 18, provide a credit card and sign a contract agreeing to return the materials on time. Otherwise, they’re charged 75 percent of the new book price, plus a 7.5 percent processing fee. Users can highlight and write in the books, but they must be returned in good condition.
At UTA, just over 4,000 students rented more than 6,000 books this fall, said Bill Coulter, the campus bookstore manager. “It went well. Everybody’s happy with it,” he said.
Internet startups are jumping on the rental bandwagon, too. A California-based company called Chegg lets students order textbooks online and then ships via UPS. The four-year-old company has rented more than 1.5 million textbooks this year.
So many sites have popped up it’s hard to keep them straight: bookrenter.com, cam pusbookrentals.com and textbookrentals.com.
Not every textbook can be rented. Experts say books need to have a decent shelf life so they can be rented several times. A bookstore won’t recoup its costs if the fourth edition of a book is quickly replaced by the fifth. A 2005 federal study reported that publishers revise textbooks every three or four years.
Nor does renting always make sense. Students who need their books beyond one semester class are better off buying. If a student needs a book immediately, waiting for books from Amazon.com and half.com might not be possible.
Consumer advocates say textbook rental programs help by offering more choices. But it shouldn’t stop there.
“We think that open-source textbooks are the ultimate solution,” said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, a coalition of student consumer organizations.
Allen cited a company called Flat World Knowledge, which publishes about a dozen business e-textbooks, with more titles in the works. Students can read the books online for free or buy a printed version (ranging from about $20 for a print-it-yourself copy to $60 for a soft-cover color copy).
At Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, Texas, students taking Introduction to Business all use the same e-text from Flat World. Professor Diane Minger said she likes the book, and not just because it’s easy on students’ checkbooks.
“I found the book to be extremely thorough, covering material in much greater depth and detail than current books on the market,” she said. “So far, I’m getting good comments from students.”
Still, experts say don’t expect e-books to replace printed books any time soon. Even though young people today are more likely to download music rather than buy a CD, or to get their news online, StudentPIRGS found that most would still rather buy a low-cost textbook than read one free online.
Scott, the UNT sophomore, said he’d actually prefer digital textbooks. “I don’t think a lot of students in this day really do care whether or not it’s physically in print or if you just have to access a Web site,” he said. “Both are just as convenient.”
And while he had a good experience renting, Scott found one major downside.
“I’m a little sad I have to return it, because I enjoyed a lot of the stories in it.”