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A New Chapter for Campus Bookstores

Rental programs and new technologies are helping to make textbooks more affordable.
University Business, Apr 2010

The campus bookstore at Tallahassee Community College (Fla.) uncovered a problem in the course of its annual student survey. "What we noticed last spring was that more and more students were not buying textbooks, period," says Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Teresa Smith. "They told us that in our surveys. They wrote comments like, 'I just didn't buy my textbook this semester' or 'I borrowed the chapters I needed from a friend when it was time to study for an exam.'"

The reason most often cited, Smith says, was the cost. "Most of them said they didn't have the money or didn't want to spend that much on a textbook. Some said they couldn't afford all their textbooks, or would only buy a few and get by with borrowing the rest. That troubled us greatly, because we know that students who do not have access to textbooks do not finish the course, or they finish it with less than desirable results and they can't transfer."

Textbook costs have risen as much as 60 percent in recent years, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups - with the average cost per student at about $900 per year.

'Since we started the [rental] program, our bookstore sales went up overall by 13.8 percent. That is significant, considering that our enrollment is up only 4 percent.'
-Teresa Smith, Tallahassee Community College

The problem has not gone unnoticed. Legislators in 34 states have proposed more than 100 bills aimed at controlling textbook expenses, yet few have made much of an impact. A federal law that takes effect in July calls for colleges and universities that get federal aid to provide students with the ISBN and retail price of all required and recommended college textbooks in an online database.

While this provides students with some indication of what their textbooks will cost, it doesn't do much to help them save money.

Last year, Congress set aside $10 million to fund textbook rental programs, which have had varying degrees of success from independent campus stores. Students have been able to buy books online for years through such outlets as Amazon and, and they've been renting books through independent stores and online vendors such as

But campus stores operated by national distributors like Follett and Barnes & Noble have advantages that the others don't. As the largest campus bookstore operators in the country, they have the muscle and safety net in place that can let rental programs develop and catch on. Both distributors have launched pilot book rental programs aimed at a small segment of their campus bookstores. Both programs will be expanded this year with more campus stores participating.

Just as with other kinds of book rental programs, students get the use of a new textbook at a significantly reduced price for the duration of the semester. However, because they supply a credit card number when they rent a textbook, the store is protected if the book is returned in an unusable condition with pages torn out or defaced.

For the major distributors, a book has to be rentable at least twice, and preferably more, to make it profitable. Some books are more amenable to renting than others. Literature and math books that aren't likely to be updated frequently, for example, are more rentable than books that deal with changing technologies or advances in medicine. Bundled packages that include a CD or DVD may not be rentable because the disks often require a password or serial number to access material.

"The decision really comes down to whether a book is going to be readopted in a course or not. Otherwise its tough to put it into the rental program," says Vince Smyth, director of auxiliary services at the University of North Florida, which operates a Follett store.

"One way to ensure that in the long term is to have the faculty actually commit to a three- or four-semester adoption of a text," he says. "That would make it an automatic choice."

Smyth's store, which serves more than 16,600 students, made nearly 377 of its 1,987 titles available for rent last fall when it began the program. This year, the number is slightly higher.

For Smith at TCC, the college needed to make a commitment to provide as many titles as possible to put in the rental program.

"We have a progressive adoption schedule at TCC in that our faculty has to agree to adopt a textbook for at least two, preferably three, years," she says. "We are very concerned about the cost of education to our students."

But, she says the major distributors have a pretty good idea already what books are purchased most often.

Indeed, Follett and Barnes & Noble look at book choices across all their client schools nationwide to determine which ones are likely to be readopted for another term.

Additionally, because they are national chains, a rentable book that might not be readopted at one school can be put back into the system elsewhere.

Follett began its rental program last fall in seven pilot stores, which resulted in about $2 million in savings to students in a single term. Barnes & Noble began its rental program in January of this year, so the numbers aren't fully in yet, but the chain is already planning to expand it to more of its campus stores.

"We sell textbooks online and we sell them in our stores," says Jade Roth, vice president for books at Barnes & Noble. "We know that there is a large percentage of students who are at home or in the dorms or wherever, placing their textbook orders online at two o'clock in the morning," she says. "If we give them the option to buy that way, we also wanted to give them the option to rent that way. And because we have an on-campus presence as well, we have an advantage over other online booksellers. If a student makes a mistake and orders the wrong book or whatever it may be, they can bring it into our on-campus store and we can solve their problem right away. There's no shipping time involved, and no back-and-forth with e-mails."

(As this issue was going to press, Follett announced that it, too, was launching an online component to its rental program.)

The bottom line, however, is the bottom line -- for students, that is. Rental programs help students save money, says John Hall, vice president for administration and campus operations at The University of Texas at Arlington.

"We've been trying hard to maintain affordability for all our students, and textbooks have been a major cost concern. The UT system has really made an effort to make the required course materials list available to students as early as possible so they have an opportunity to shop around for the best prices," he says. "They found that, in some cases, it was less expensive from Amazon, and in some cases, it was cheaper to go through the bookstore. The rental program has just made it more affordable for students to get their books from us." Hall says just under $200,000 in savings were realized in the first semester of the program.

With textbooks costing less, one might wonder whether students are spending their savings in other parts of the bookstore. Although anecdotally there is more money being spent, it's too early to say why.

'I think there will be a lot more options and the campus bookstores are going to have to change and be more flexible in getting those options to students.'
-Vince Smyth, University of North Florida

"We have increased our overall sales in the bookstore, but I don't know that savings on rentals has moved money over to other areas," says Smyth at UNF. "I suspect that some of the money saved from rentals does go to that, but I think I would attribute it more to the fact that we've doubled our store size and have been able to introduce additional lines."

"Interestingly, since we started the program, our bookstore sales were up overall by 13.8 percent," says TCC's Smith. "That is significant, considering that our enrollment is up only 4 percent. Many of our students are Title IV Pell eligible and every dollar they may save in textbooks they get back as a disbursement, which goes to other expenses they have, like child care, or gas for their vehicles. So, while students are spending more in the bookstore, we won't know if there is a correlation for some time. However, if all it took to get students back in the store was to put in a rental program then that's great."

"The big benefit to the college bookstores is that they can offer more of what their students want -- more choice, more price points, more savings," says Roth.

Early results indicate that the rental programs are a hit, and the distributors regularly seek feedback to fine-tune them, says UNF's Smyth.

"From my conversations with our university bookstore council, everyone has been very positive about it.

"Follett conducted a survey that asked students to rate their overall satisfaction with renting textbooks. The results were that 92.9 percent were satisfied or very satisfied. Just 3.32 percent said they were dissatisfied," he says. "That tells me it's a pretty good program that's in place."

Textbook rentals represent just one part of the evolving college bookstore scene. The biggest change has been the growth of digital books. Every few years over the past decade, word would come of a new digital text reader that would make the printed page obsolete, but that didn't happen. The early readers had problems, and the publishing industry was reluctant to pay the high price it cost them to digitize books. But now things have changed. Digitizing is much faster and cheaper, and the readers have worked out many of the problems that kept people away from them. Amazon's Kindle reader and Apple's new iPad may be getting the media attention now, but at least four other majors vendors are readying their own readers for release later this year.

And even though digital texts are readily available online, some see the college bookstore as becoming the go-to place for their digital needs, as well.

"People will still want the advice they can get from a real person," says Smith. "They're going to want someone who can make sure they get what they want and can help them with their purchase. I see the college bookstore as being that place."

"I think the college bookstore is going to be all about choices. We've been selling digital texts in our stores since 2003," says Roth. "They are still a very small percentage of our sales, but we see that growing over time, as digital becomes a significant option. The bookstore of today is already so different from what it was 20 years ago, and I think it will change even more."

"This is definitely an interesting and exciting time for bookstores," says Smyth. "I think digital texts and the open access textbooks [free, online texts] we're starting to hear about have potential, but there are still a lot of people who just want hands-on solid books. I think there will be a lot more options and the campus bookstores are going to have to change and be more flexible in getting those options to students. If a book is available as a digital text, our manager will tell the professor that it's another option."

But whether it's a rental program or a digital download station, the campus bookstore will continue to live up to its moniker.

"That's great for the students because they have the materials they need and that's great for the college," says Smith. "To me that's a win-win for everybody."