Textbook Rentals: An Unsatisfying Solution

About half of college bookstores now offer some form of textbook rentals to students. But according to an Associated Press piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, it doesn’t really work very well:

Textbook rental programs at many of the nation’s colleges — touted as money-savers for students — are limited by the number of available titles, publishers who release frequent new editions and professors who believe their right to choose course materials is essential to academic freedom.

…The programs are expensive to start up and difficult to operate. In addition, there are complaints that rental prices are still too high, even though they can be as much as half the cost of a new book.

Despite the barriers to success, the idea of helping students save money on textbooks is appealing. The average college student now spends almost $900 a semester on textbooks. A dozen colleges got about $1 million each from the Department of Education to create textbook rental programs.

The trouble is that textbook rental programs don’t actually address the structural problem of cost of textbooks, which is that publishers annually offer updated editions with little substantive changes, but a lot of useless updates like CDs with computer components that students don’t actually want or use.

Textbook prices have increased 10 percent a year since 2006. It appears publishers use textbook sales to help offset declines in sales of other books. Textbook rentals might be a cheaper option, but so far it’s not actually an option that works for students.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer