Among freshman rituals at the University of South Florida is this time-honored tradition: sticker shock at college textbook inflation.
"Prices are totally ridiculous," said Nicole Monkarsh, a public health major from Oviedo. "I spent $330 on three books. And they were used. But my jaw dropped when a guy in front of me in line paid $800 for four."
This fall students have more money-saving options, as most of the nation's college bookstores offer to rent up to a third of the titles on their shelves. Whether students save is another matter, but more about that later.
With wholesale prices rising at four times the rate of inflation since 1994, the average student today forks out more than $1,000 a year for textbooks. It was enough to stir entrepreneurs, student activists, Congress and the two dominant college bookstore chains to act.
"Textbooks have always been a ripoff because it's a captive market," said Nicole Allen, a textbook campaign advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Once the professor assigns the book, everybody must buy it. Yet 77 percent of professors told us publisher sales reps refuse to disclose prices ahead of time."
A federal law that took effect in July requires colleges to identify required books and class materials prices at registration so students can plan ahead and comparison shop bookstores and online booksellers. It also requires publishers tell professors retail prices before texts are assigned. High-profit bundled goodies like CD ROMs and workbooks must be priced and offered separately, too.
Bookstores needed no nudge from Congress to rent.
"The professors require the books. Students don't want to pay that much, and we're stuck in the middle" defending publishers' royalties to authors and new editions that make texts obsolete every three or four years, said Jade Roth, a vice president at Barnes & Noble College, which added rentals this month at half its 600 school bookstores, including USF.
"We're renting because it is the right thing to do and because some online competitors rent for as little as a week at a time," said Joe Skaggs, vice president of marketing and business development at Follette Higher Education, which adds rentals at 720 of its 885 college stores this fall including Saint Leo University, St. Petersburg College and the University of Florida.
Hillsborough Community College, which owns its bookstores, is not renting books.
Text rental kicked off in 2007 at chegg.com, (a compaction of the phrase "chicken and egg," a career Catch-22 confronting the site founders, two Iowa State grads denied jobs in their chosen professions because they had no experience). Other text renters followed, including ecampus.com, bookrenter.com and campusbookrental.com.
Barnes & Noble, which offers about 1,200 textbooks that can be downloaded to e-reading devices, sees renting as a bridge to less expensive options to hardcover texts. And in Florida there are also efforts such as Orange Grove Texts (theorangegrove.com) to create open source-style textbooks that can be downloaded at half the cost of books.
But hardcovers are still the bulk of the business. Students keep about two-thirds of their textbooks. Most books for rent are for introductory and survey courses, the ones most often sold back to bookstores.
Here's an example to demystify renting vs. buying.
A book that retails new for $100 would normally sell as a used book at $75. It costs $45 to $50 as a rental.
A student could get back $37.50 by selling it used back to the bookstore. That would be cheaper than renting.
But if that particular textbook edition was not on the approved list the following semester, the bookstores will only offer $20.
So renting is really about who assumes the risk of a book devalued by dropping off the approved list the following year. The bookstore takes the risk in a rental. Students accept it when buying.
"Renting is the cheapest option upfront," said Roth. "But the old model of buying and selling costs less overall if the text stays on the approved list."
Khara Fleming, a USF freshman, is smarting after getting $70 back for a text she paid $140 to buy a few months ago.
"I'm looking at a $600 book bill, so I'll try renting," she said. "I knew books would be expensive, but whoa, it's only a book."
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.