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Opportunities, Risks, Rewards

Considering textbook rental and making it work
University Business, Jan 2011

With the rising cost of higher education a challenging reality for students and educators, affordability is being addressed by legislation on both state and federal levels. For example, institutions are being urged to explore cost savings for students via provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. At Grand Rapids Community College (Mich.), our bookstore operator partner, Follett Higher Education Group, approached us about their Rent-A-Text program. We were selected for a pilot to test the textbook rental model anchored in an on-campus store and then help in fine-tuning it for a nationwide rollout.

Of course, before we joined the program, we had lots of questions:

  • What are the advantages, disadvantages, opportunities, and risks?
  • How will textbook rental impact the bookstore and the college financially?
  • Will students really save money?
  • Will faculty embrace textbook rental?
  • Will text rental bring students back to the bookstore, and help us be more competitive against online vendors?
  • How will adoptions be handled?
  • What if the desired title is not on the list of rental-eligible titles?
  • Will students be notified of approaching rental deadlines? How?

The questions above were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Moving from a purchase model to a rental model presents all manner of operational challenges and complexities. But these questions were answered to our satisfaction. For those elsewhere who may be considering a textbook rental program, here are some of the thought processes we went through along the way for our campus:

Opportunity and risk: In recent years, many campus bookstores have experienced an erosion of market share to competitors, particularly e-commerce entities that are more price-competitive. For us, the real risk was not in joining the program; the real risk was missing out on an opportunity to save students money and be more competitive. Follett bore the textbook inventory and financial risk burden on our behalf.

Campus bookstores have experienced an erosion of market share to competitors.

Campus response: From the outset, students seized textbook rental as a tangible way to reduce education costs. They are thrilled, as are their parents. At the end of the day, students don't want to have to worry about their course materials; they simply want them when they need them, and at a fair price. Students can preregister for rental online so they don't have to fill out any forms at the bookstore. The bookstore accepts a variety of payment options, including credit cards and financial aid. When it comes time to return the book, students are sent a series of e-mails reminding them of the due date.

Faculty concern: For faculty, the number one concern was choice: could they still select textbooks for their classes? Yes. Follett has a national list of thousands of rental-eligible titles. If a textbook is not already on this list, faculty can create a local list. To add a textbook to the local list, the institution simply commits to using the book for four consecutive terms.

The results for our college have been positive--and encouraging for cost-control efforts. According to data collected during the pilot, Follett saved students at seven colleges and universities nearly $2 million, in just one term. Our students saved, on average, 50 percent or more compared to the cost of new textbooks. When I think back to conversations I've had over the years about the cost of education, it makes me wish we could have had this in our bookstore a long time ago. Any time you can offer someone half off what they are used to paying, it's a powerful thing.

Students have indicated they appreciate their bookstore now offering them more choices: whether it's a new or used textbook, an e-book, or the option to rent. They feel empowered by the expanded options, not just the extra money in their pockets. And from my perspective, it's been great implementing a program I know will benefit my campus community. It's a classic win-win situation.

Robert Partridge is executive vice president for business and finance at Grand Rapids Community College (Mich.).

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