STEVE INSKEEP, host:
College students who bought their textbooks over the last several weeks may still be suffering from sticker shock. Now a number of universities offer a money saving alternative: They rent textbooks.
From Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Marianne Russ reports on one school that's launched such a program.
MARIANNE RUSS: College textbooks aren't getting any cheaper.
Unidentified Woman #1: You find everything okay today?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah. Thank you.
Unidentified Woman: All right.
Unidentified Woman #2: These are for rent?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah. I can just ring them up on…
RUSS: Just ask Kelly Carmichael. She's a Sacramento State senior studying to be an elementary school teacher. She's paying for her books at the school's Hornet Bookstore.
Ms. KELLY CARMICHAEL (Student, Sacramento State): One book from one of my child development class was a hundred and like seventy-two dollars.
RUSS: When a professor mentioned that she didn't have to buy the book, but could rent it this semester, Carmichael says it was a no-brainer.
Ms. CARMICHAEL: So they had that for rent for like, I think it was only like $75, so it's like so much better.
RUSS: Carmichael's looking to save every cent she can right now.
Ms. CARMICHAEL: I have a daughter, so I'm trying to spend the least money as possible, so.
RUSS: Just how much can students save? Hornet Bookstore director, Pam Parsons walks us through the store.
Ms. PAM PARSONS (Bookstore Director, Hornet Bookstore): For any title that is for rent, you'll see a sign with it that will not only show the new and used price, but also the rent-it-for price.
RUSS: So, for example, this text here, what's it called, "Infants, Child and Adolescents."
Ms. PARSONS: So new it would be $142, used it would be $106.50, and then you can rent it for $58.34.
RUSS: Parsons says every rental book will be at least 55 percent off. But you do have to give it back at the end of the semester, and not every book can be rented. It's classes like Psychology 101 and anatomy — basic subjects that teach the fundamentals. For example, you won't find the latest computer text or a book about the human genome, because the store has to be able to rent the books for at least four semesters to make money on them.
So does renting mean no highlighting?
Ms. PARSONS: No, actually, highlighting is fine. What you don't want to do is dump it in a puddle and run it over, or rip out the pages.
RUSS: Sacramento State has 527 titles for rent — that's 15 percent of the bookstore's total. According to the National Association of College Stores, only about 100 campus stores rent books across the country.
Mr. CHARLES SCHMIDT (National Association of College Stores): There's a couple of barriers.
RUSS: Charles Schmidt is with the association.
Mr. SCHMIDT: One, it's very costly to start. Two, it's costly because you need extra warehouse space for the books, and three, you need to get the faculty on board.
RUSS: Schmidt said it's not a new idea. He says rental programs have actually been around since the 1860s, but now they're growing at a faster pace. He says part of it may be the recession, but stores are also responding to competition from online book rental sites. That's something store director Pam Parsons is very aware of.
Ms. PARSONS: Ten years ago, you know, competition would be a store outside of your own store, and now competition is everywhere.
RUSS: She says this semester, rentals have accounted for 10 percent of book sales so far. That's pretty significant, given that only 15 percent of the books can be rented.
Unidentified Woman #3: That one is eligible as a rental as well.
Mr. JOSE VILLANUEVA: Okay and then I got one more book here…
Unidentified Woman: Okay.
Mr. VILLANUEVA: …for Sociology 8…
RUSS: But renting isn't always the cheapest option if a student buys a used book and sells it back, it's actually a few dollars cheaper, but that only works if the professor adopts that book again for the next semester. That's something junior Jose Villanueva says isn't worth the risk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VILLANUEVA: I still have books that I have from my freshman year, which was three years ago. I still can't get rid of them.
RUSS: Sacramento State hopes to double its rental program within two years, and the federal government is stepping in to promote textbook rental as well. Legislation passed last year included $10 million for rental pilot programs.
For NPR News, I'm Marianne Russ in Sacramento.
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