Monday, July 12, 2010

Temporary Reading

Eventually, e-books may replace the traditional college textbook -- and the high prices they impose. In the meantime, textbook rentals are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the used book market

Guest post by Brennon

A little more than a month from now, on any given college campus, students will once again be lining up at the university bookstore to purchase stacks of new textbooks. But how long can this annual tradition survive?

A recent article in Good magazine, "The Demise of the $200 Textbook,"suggests that the collegiate mainstay of the shiny new textbook will soon be a thing of the past.

As the story explains, the textbook retail industry isn't keeping up with the national initiatives to make college more affordable. In fact, the author says the price of textbooks in recent years is rising at more than two times the rate of inflation.

The College Board reports that students spent an average $1122 on textbooks last year. So it's no surprise that in a report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 60 percent of students who had dropped out of college said the hefty textbook bill was a factor in their decision to leave school. What's more surprising, though, is a statistic released by the U.S. Department of Education. It shows that for students who attended two-year public schools, textbook fees accounted for 72 percent of their education costs.

Sadly, the less students who buy books retail, the higher prices become, as publishers desperately try to recoup their costs. The used book market has long been a factor in textbook industry, one publishers have tried to combat by regularly issuing revised editions. But a growing market for rentals, in which students pay for the temporary right to read a book, has become an increasingly significant factor in its own right.

Last year, about 300 schools around the country offered students a textbook rental program, according to the National Association of College Stores. This year, the Association expects to see five times as many. A recent story in New Jersey's Star-Ledger says many of the state's schools, including Rutgers, Montclair State, and Fairleigh Dickinson are joining the trend.

The growing popularity of these programs is partly due to grants the federal government started offering colleges last year as an incentive, the Ledger reports.

As for those schools that have not yet taken the government up on the over, there are also online sources available where students can rent books at deep discounts, often cutting their bills in half.

While the rental industry may not be a complete or permanent solution, Nicole Allen of the Student Interest Research Group told the Ledger that "We are taking steps in the right direction."

Brennon is a writer who works for, an online bookstore.