Are textbooks a ‘scam’? Students think so

Renting textbooks can save thousands over a four-year college career, industry experts say.
Renting textbooks can save thousands over a four-year college career, industry experts say.

Buying pricey textbooks has never been a back-to-school highlight for college students, but according to a survey released Aug. 12, students rank textbooks among their leading wastes of money and the “biggest scam” in higher education.

Disdain for the costliness of textbooks was just one of the many financial worries revealed in a survey of college students conducted by online textbook rental company BookRenter, which launched in 2008 and serves about 5,000 college campuses with a library of 3 million textbooks.

The survey results echo a sentiment expressed by many student activists in recent years as textbook prices have soared and web-based book rental web sites have attracted millions of customers with texts often marked down by more than half the retail cost.

College students pay more than $900 annually for textbooks, according to national surveys released in 2008 and 2009, and the cost of textbooks is rising at four times the rate of inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Association of College Stores said students pay about $667 per year on required course materials.

Angst about the price of books is coupled by a growing reliance on personal income instead of tuition money or spending cash from parents, according to the survey. About one out of every 10 students expects a “free ride” through college.

The survey also shows that educational costs impact most students’ school choice, and some students aren’t proud of the ways they have earned money to pay their tuition, buy textbooks, and stay in school.

Fifty-seven percent of student respondents who said they “settled” on their current college “did so because of cost, not because they lacked the credentials, and one in seven students said they regret or are embarrassed about ways they earned money while in school to make ends meet,” the survey said.

BookRenter CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia said respondents to the company’s survey “displayed a tremendous commitment to education, often at great cost to themselves,” adding that renting textbooks has been shown to save hundreds of dollars per semester, allowing students to “focus more on learning than how they’re going to pay for school.”

“People are looking at textbooks as a source of savings,” said Michael Geller, vice president of marketing for BookRenter. “A survey like this shows that there are students bending over backwards and going every which way to get themselves through college.”

Geller added that when the survey results were tallied last month, he was “slightly surprised at the degree at which people are having trouble paying for college.”

A spokeswoman for Chegg, another leading online book rental company that serves more than 6,400 college campuses, said a student who uses Chegg to rent textbooks instead of buy them for full price can save up to $2,000 over a four-year college career.

The BookRenter survey, conducted by San Francisco-based Q & A Research, Inc., drew from a national online panel of students attending four-year colleges and universities. The results were collected from May 24-June 15.

Five in 10 students said that if they were given an extra $500, they would put the money toward education-related costs, 11 percent said they would give the money to their parents, and 11 percent would use the cash to pay down their credit card debt, according to the survey.

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