How Textbook Rentals Undercut Students

We need to do better in making course materials available to cash-strapped undergraduates and letting them interact with the texts and ideas, Sheila Liming argues.

June 6, 2018
 
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“Don’t do it,” the advertisement warns.

It’s talking about buying required books for classes, which, it tells me, I “only need for a few months.” Instead, the ad is trying to get me to rent those barely even needed books, because doing so, it promises, will “save a ton.” There’s a handy little button that links directly to the rental section of my campus bookstore’s website, and it offers an additional inducement, this time delivered in all caps: RENT THOSE BOOKS.

Advertisements of this kind materialize in my email inbox at the start of every semester. They are as much a part of the general back-to-school routine as activities fairs and rush week. I know I’m not the target audience for these ads, but I pay attention to them anyway -- for the sake of my students, who clearly are.

Renting is by far the predominant means of acquiring books on my campus, which I originally mistook for a sign of good, old-fashioned Midwestern frugality. But in talking with my students, I have since learned that there is much more to the story where renting is concerned. When I asked a classroom of undergraduate English majors, for instance, why they had overwhelmingly chosen to rent their print copies of Portnoy’s Complaint (given that used ones on Amazon sell for as little as $1.99), they looked at me in a way that suggested I might be just be as nuts as Roth’s protagonist. Why wouldn’t they rent? And besides, they explained, the campus bookstore only stocks rental copies.

It’s not difficult to account for the popularity of rented texts. Today, most American college students arrive on campus (or else online) with a haunting awareness of what their education is costing them. The loans that helped to get them there in the first place stamp dollar signs all over their college experience, ensuring that thoughts of use and value are never far from their minds.

Given those concerns, it seems only natural that students would seek out cost-saving strategies to offset the overwhelming burden of all that debt and all that doubt. But how did we arrive at a situation where rented texts are the only option being offered to certain students, and how might all this talk of “saving a ton” and you’ll-never-use-it-again be affecting students’ understandings of the value -- not to mention the meaning -- of their degrees?

A degree used to mean learning from texts and racking up a cumulative store of skills and reference materials along the way. But with the rise of textbook rentals, the rules of learning are getting rewritten, and not by education professionals, and not in accordance with the needs of student consumers, either.

Indeed, working-class and first-generation students stand to suffer most as a result of the growth of textbook rentals, which mirror the kinds of manipulative lending and leasing practices seen in other industries. Education specialist Mike Caulfield, for instance, compares book renting to the pill-splitting phenomenon, wherein consumers try to avoid paying too much for prescription medications by acquiring higher-dosage prescriptions and then splitting their pills in half. The dangers associated with pill-splitting are grave (and include the possibility of overdose), but working-class consumers tend to overlook them in their search for an economically viable means of getting what they need.

The problem is that, in the majority of cases, students are not getting what they need from rented textbooks. And as vicious and extortionate return policies become the standard in the industry, they often aren’t even getting what they pay for.

***

How much does the typical college student spend on books, and how much should they be spending?

This set of questions has preoccupied education professionals in recent years, bolstered in part by reports indicating that the cost of textbooks has grown at three times the rate of inflation. A much-cited, but extremely misleading, 2014 study published by the College Board pegged average student textbook expenditures at roughly $1,200 a year. Media outlets, sensing plenty of cause for alarm, took this figure and ran with it, with U.S. News & World Report repeating the College Board’s findings and The Atlantic using them to bemoan the “Death of the Textbook.” The College Board’s study, though, was not based on data and so did not proclaim to “necessarily reflect actual student expenditures.”

Phil Hill, an education industry analyst, pointed out this rather obvious flaw and countered it with a new set of figures. Based on data that he had gathered from the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and other sources, Hill revealed that students’ actual book purchases amounted to only half of the College Board’s original estimate, or to about $530 to $640 per year. What’s more, Hill’s subsequent claim that this figure was actually declining, not increasing, caused many to wonder: How could college students be spending less on textbooks if the cost of those textbooks was reported to be egregiously on the rise?

In the past decade, textbook consumers’ options have expanded dramatically, and this in part explains the resulting mismatch between average spending habits and average book costs. Online retailers, operating either independently or through the likes of Amazon.com, now dispense used and digital editions to students, giving campus bookstores a nearly literal run for their (quite literal) money.

And, for many students, there is another, even cheaper option: not buying the book at all. A 2014 study released by Student Monitor, a market research consulting firm, found that a full third of college students wind up not acquiring some of their required texts, whether by choice or because they are financially unable to do so. Such findings, according to Caulfield, put pressure on Hill’s revised $600-per-year book budget estimate, since they suggest that Hill’s figure results in truth from students “hitting the ceiling of what they are able to spend on textbooks, a good $400 to $700 before they have the books they need.”

The exorbitant cost of books, in other words, is making it so students cannot receive full access to the education they are already paying for. This is where textbook rentals enter the picture, with campus bookstores and online companies like Chegg.com and Bookrenters.com proclaiming the power to save poor, cash-strapped students from the fate of unpreparedness.

But what these vendors effectively demand from their customers are up-front declarations regarding use. In order to rent a book, a student is first forced into making a pre-emptive decision about the apparent usefulness of it -- to them personally, to a particular class or to their degree program. And students, glancing over a list of required texts for a class they have not yet taken and probably still know very little about, are generally not in a position to do this.

But they have to: most rental companies grant only the barest of windows (30 days, usually) permitting a student to change their mind and opt to purchase the book they have already rented. After that, they are locked into the terms of their rental agreement and tasked with returning the book, regardless of how useful it turns out to be.

Similar restrictions apply to ebooks and digital editions, which are licensed to the user on a month-to-month basis: students lose access to these texts forever once the rental period closes, unless they are willing to resubscribe. Likewise, the recent growth of the inclusive-access model, which bundles together digital editions and has whole courses enroll to receive them at a discounted rate, folding the costs directly into students’ tuition bills, promotes digital rentals and discourages ongoing engagement with these kinds of texts after the course ends.

On the surface, inclusive-access programs look like open educational resources, which use digital repositories to grant learners access to required texts. Except that, quite unlike OER, they charge.

As Inside Higher Ed explained recently, under inclusive-access agreements, “If students want to download the content to access it beyond the duration of their course, there is often an additional fee.” Meanwhile, students’ access to the texts during the semester is typically dependent on Wi-Fi access, since the books themselves are not downloadable.

What all of this means is that, for 43 percent of today’s college students (the number of those who rely on renting, according to the NACS), the meaning and purpose of higher education has been devalued before they even set foot in the classroom. This occurs as the result of their having been forced to anticipate and assess the value of their experiences in a particular class in the process of acquiring the materials for it. Rental companies insist that a given book can only be “useful” to a student for the duration of a single semester (“you only need it for a few months,” to recall the aforementioned ad), and so encourage students to see their own learning as fated for expiration and uselessness.

Even worse, rental companies and vendors -- including campus bookstores -- actively discourage students’ efforts to use the texts they have rented, since wear and tear threatens the longevity of a book that the vendor wants to see re-rented over and over again. Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, for instance, warn students to keep writing and highlighting to a minimum, reserving the right, in the case of “excessive” marking, to charge the student a “buyout price” that usually resembles the cost of a new, not used, edition.

Meanwhile, other vendors like Bookbyte.com directly forbid writing of any kind, all while threatening similar penalties. Such policies seem particularly exploitative when one stops to consider that, for everyone except the first person in line, a rented book is a used book anyway.

The whole process rests on a pernicious kind of doublespeak, wherein purportedly useless objects conceal high costs, all of which ought to prompt us to ask questions about who is profiting from all this duplicity. It’s worth noting, for instance, that the buyout price -- which retailers may assess in the event that a rented book is not returned on time, appears damaged or has too much writing in it -- may exceed the cost of a new edition.

But that is precisely what retailers are banking on. In rental industry parlance, this is what’s known as breakage, and book vendors, just like car rental companies, operate on the assumption that a percentage of renters (10 to 20 percent, in the case of textbook renters) will end up breaking the terms of their contracts. They will be forced to pay the market price for a new replacement, even though the vendor originally purchased the item at cost, which allows the retailer to turn a profit.

This is why many students today do not take notes in their books. Rental options are highly incentivized, but the stakes associated with renting are simply too high.

***

For the past few years, my own research has centered on the American writer Edith Wharton. In particular, I’ve been engaged in two projects -- one digital, one print -- that have sought to mine the contents of Wharton’s personal collection of library books for clues about turn-of-the-century reading practices. These investigations have been, all the while, underscored by questions concerning autodidacticism. Wharton never attended school in her life, and this is in part why her library collection is so important: it was her school.

In viewing Wharton’s books, one encounters glimpses of her progress as an intellectual and as a writer. Most often, these glimpses amount to marginalia or markings in the text. Wharton’s copy of John Donne’s Poems, &c. -- a rare and custom-bound early edition dating from 1669 -- is covered in markings. Wharton had a marked appreciated for fine editions, but none was too fine to stop her pencil, apparently. These manifestations of her engagement with the text have helped me to track and appraise her development as a thinker but, even more than that, they shed light on processes of self-appraisal.

Our interactions with texts prepare us for the interactions we would have with our peers and our teachers. We learn from and listen to books; then, after a fashion, we learn to speak to and with them. This is part of how we, as students, become part of an intellectual community and enter into conversation about the subjects we care about. But the practice of renting textbooks now threatens to make such interactions impossible.

If a student is discouraged, or else prohibited, from interacting with the texts that their teachers have assigned them -- if they cannot mark or write in them; if they are not permitted to customize their interactions with them; if they cannot count on having continued access to them, even -- then a series of roadblocks has been erected in the path of all that critical thinking and conversation. Indifference begets indifference, and not talking to and interacting with one’s books becomes not talking to and interacting with one’s peers or teachers.

My students, I realize, are not Edith Wharton -- neither am I, with my public school education and my college degrees. But in Wharton’s marginalia, I see her teaching herself to become the person she wants to be, and it is a process that feels familiar. I, for instance, also read Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint as an undergraduate (and hated every minute of it, as the bulk of my margin notes would appear to indicate). And what did I learn from it? Well, to start, a host of vocabulary words, including "sylvan," "philatelist," "pogrom," "ignominious," "expatiate" and "discomfit." I know I learned them because I wrote their definitions in the back of the book and, today, I no longer find it necessary to look them up.

But this example, however minor, illustrates just a few of the changes that are being wrought to higher education at the hands of the book-rental industry. What’s additionally concerning is that working-class and first-generation students are disproportionately affected by the textbook rental scheme, which is billed as offering a “better value” for budget-conscious consumers. Renting a book may appear to make economic sense on the surface, since it can cost 20 to 30 percent less than buying one, but the practice harms students in the long run by preventing them from gauging their own progress, from accessing texts and notes from previous classes or assignments, and from viewing the effects of their education as cumulative. That, and it often ends up costing them more.

Recently, I spotted rented copies of the volume Debates in the Digital Humanities in my classroom, even though the entire book is available online for free (along with all the follow-up Debates volumes, released as open-access editions). Students are paying more and being coerced into renting because they are told that they must, and because they have not been made aware of their options. It’s therefore up to education professionals to show them -- and to fight for the expansion of -- worthy, cost-friendly alternatives, including both OER and affordable print editions. Those alternatives do exist, and anyone who says differently is, as the saying goes, probably selling something.

Bio

Sheila Liming is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Dakota.

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