The chances of today’s college students spending the first day of class in line waiting to pay hundreds of dollars for a few textbooks are waning. Students now have options: online bookstores, textbook rental services, and organized bartering websites.
In 2007, as an ignorant freshman, I paid $350 for a brand new intermediate algebra textbook. I had never spent that much money in a single purchase before. What made the situation even more painful was being told by the cashier that there would be no refunds for the lavish purchase, because the school would be using a different text the following year.
At the time, being able to buy a used textbook was the best idea I could come across, and for the next few semesters, I browsed the shelves for the cheapest textbooks listed on my syllabi. Then I discovered the beauty of websites like eBay and Amazon. On these websites, I could compare textbook prices and quality from the comfort of my couch. Occasionally, a Google search of an ISBN number directed me to a few questionable websites, but for me, being on a budget means a good bargain is worth the risk.
One such Google search directed me to Chegg.com — a website that rents new and used textbooks to students. Chegg offered to rent a textbook to me for the entire semester for a mere $25, plus shipping. All I had to do when the class wrapped up was put the textbook in a box, print a shipping label from the Chegg website, and drop it in the mail. There would be no extra fees other than the initial rental cost, and they would even plant a tree for every book rented.
All the perks of the ordering process made this deal seem too good to be true and, as we all know, those are the deals we are supposed to avoid. But after researching the company, I decided to give Chegg a try. Thankfully, it worked. There were no scams or surprise fees at the end of the semester.
In the last five years, Chegg has been able to reach students on more than 7,000 campuses, the website reports. It has also expanded its services to include features like eTextbooks, course reviews, and a site that allows students to get homework help from their peers.
As the popularity of textbook rental services has grown, university bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and many used-book websites have expanded to offer similar services to keep up with the competition. Now, Chegg isn’t the only option for renting textbooks. In fact, even price-comparison websites have begun to offer students the opportunity to compare textbook rental rates.
James Krewson, the CEO of one such price-comparison website, FindersCheapers.com, decided to add textbook rental companies to stay relevant and keep up with competition. “My website’s search results have to be comprehensive and accurate in order to provide the best value to my visitors,” he said. “Not showing textbook rentals negatively affected my repeat visitor numbers.”
These days, students are looking to more than just rentals to save a few bucks. As tablets like the iPad and Kindle become more popular, so does the option to download a textbook almost instantaneously as an eBook. Now, eBooks seem to be everywhere — even on my university campus. Just last semester, as my English class was taking turns reading different paragraphs from one of our required books aloud, I saw the student next to me take out an iPhone and with just a few taps, buy the eBook. By the time it was his turn to read, the app was installed, and the book was on the page we were reading.
Though students can use iPhones or tablets to download eBooks, those aren’t their only options. The iTunes store offers a variety of apps like Kno, CourseSmart, and Inkling, all of which eliminate the need for students to lug a heavy backpack around, while providing the convenience of always having access to their books.
Regardless of how easy it can be to get a book digitally on one of several different devices, some students still like having a physical book, which has made the rental textbook industry a strong competitor to traditional textbook sales. Within the last few years, renting books has expanded beyond a mere option that select sites offer. Now, according to Kristen Connely, the director of Bellevue College’s bookstore, rentals are the new normal.
“The biggest difference [I've seen] between 2006 and 2012 is that course material rentals are now expected to be available, whereas in 2006 it was completely unexpected,” said Connely.
Because she wanted to offer college students an alternative to purchasing textbooks, she started a hybrid rental program. “I wanted to help the incoming students to have affordable options and not be discouraged by the high cost of course materials, which are usually not factored into the cost of college,” she said.
Connely reported that when she first started the program, 284 books were rented. In just five years, that number has increased to more than 1,000.
As the popularity of such money-saving programs increases, organized bartering websites like Campus Shift provide a medium for students from the same campus to trade books each semester. Students simply register on the website, select their campus, and make a list of books they have and those they need. It is then up to them to meet up with peers to complete the trade.
Even though sites like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist are still used to get rid of old textbooks, the reality is that students are benefitting from these more innovative mediums. Since first using Chegg and a combination of the other sites, I have yet to spend more than $200 on books for a single semester — and sometimes, my annual total is even less than that.
Deisy Enriquez is a college student at the University of Houston.