Starting this summer, Bellevue Community College in suburban Seattle will join the small but growing number of colleges that allow students to rent rather than buy textbooks. Students will pay a per-book fee that is significantly lower than the purchase price, and can apply the rental cost toward an eventual purchase if they choose.
“We’ve been getting complaints from students about the price of textbooks,” said Kristen Connely, manager of the college’s bookstore. “We warn them at the register that it’s going to cost a lot. We’re often caught between the publishers and the students.”
Recent studies by the National Association of College Stores  and the State Public Interest Research Groups  find that textbook costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation. The college store association’s report said tuition costs and other higher education expenses are still rising faster than book costs, however. The association pointed to a College Board study that found that students spent an average of between $770 and $870 on books and supplies during the 2004-5 acaedmic year.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that textbooks are rising at an average rate of 6 percent per year, and that costs have nearly tripled from 1986 to 2004. A recent GAO report  showed that the cost of textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees varies for first-time degree-seeking students by the type of institution: 26 percent at four-year public institutions, 8 percent at four-year privates and 72 percent at two-year public colleges. Supplemental learning tools such as CD-ROMs and online workbooks that are packaged with textbooks often cause the overall price to increase, according to the agency.
Politicians in various states have begun to confront the rising textbook costs by sponsoring legislation that requires bookstores at public universities to work with professors to craft affordable options. In Florida, the House Colleges and Universities Committee unanimously passed a bill this week that would allow students to buy books without paying sales tax.
Programs in which stores buy books back from students have long been in place, but bookstores often pay only a fraction of the original cost. That’s why college bookstores across the country are taking a look at the financial feasibility of rental programs.
As of spring 2005, textbook rental services were offered by only 1 percent  of the members of the National Association of College Stores. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, estimated that about 20 full-fledged rental programs are in use across the country.
Southeast Missouri State University has one of the longest-running programs. When students there register for classes at the start of each semester, they pay a $17.75 flat fee per course to check out a book at the beginning of class and return it once finals are through. Professors are asked to abide by a campuswide code: All sections of a course are to use the same textbook. There should be one textbook per course. And all titles must be used for two calendar years.
“The administration has said, ‘We are a textbook rental school,’ ” said Janet Chisman, manager of the Southeast Bookstore, at Southeast Missouri State. “Once that message comes down from the top, the faculty sees it as school policy.”
And the university uses the program as a marketing tool. “They say our textbook rental is like a scholarship for every student,” Chisman said.
Publishers and bookstore operators cite several reasons why rental programs are still a relative rarity. The requirement that professors use the same textbook for two years can be a hindrance for faculty members, says Cliff Ewert, vice president of public and campus relations at Follett Higher Education Group, which operates many campus bookstores.
“As much of an upside there is in saving students money, the downside is a book has to be used for two plus years,” Ewert said. “If you hire a new faculty member, it’s an infringement on [the person’s] academic freedom.”
Another problem is the startup costs associated with the programs, said Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores. It takes a few semesters of rental use before a store recoups its initial costs of purchasing the titles, she said. Libertowski pointed out that college stores don’t select much of their inventory; professors most often provide them with a list of titles.
Bellevue Community College’s Connely said that English professors at her college have been the least likely to agree to using one textbook for two years. Math, physics and business faculty have been the most amenable. She said it is more difficult for community colleges and smaller institutions to afford the initial cost of buying books for rental.
All of the California State University campuses are considering rental programs, according to Chuck Kissel, director of Titan Shops, at Cal State’s Fullerton campus. On his campus, 12 titles are available for rental, predominantly in entry-level courses. He is hoping to have that up to 25 titles by fall. Students are charged about 30 percent of the book price to rent. Kissel said about half of students at the university have indicated they want to rent.
San Diego State University’s bookstore is also trying out a textbook rental program starting in the fall. Two faculty members have expressed interest, said Todd Summer, director of course materials at the bookstore.
“We want to go forward with rentals, but we don’t think it will happen overnight,” Summer said.
Southeast Missouri State’s Chisman acknowledged that the university’s campuswide rental program isn’t for every school. And she acknowledges that it’s not the best set-up for everyone in the college textbook industry.
“Publisher reps are not on our campuses as much as others,” she said.