Students send texts for cheap textbooks

More than 20,000 students have texted their textbook requests this year.
More than 20,000 students have texted their textbook requests this year.

College students reeling from textbook sticker shock in their campus’s bookstore can send a text message to a popular book rental company to see if they can save serious cash every semester.

Online textbook rental companies, which allow students to rent books for a semester, often for a fraction of the retail cost, have seen consistent growth in the past three years, industry experts say—and one company, Chegg, now invites text-message inquiries to help students check availability and rent from the company’s repository of 4.2 million books.

College students still can check availability and prices on Chegg’s web site, but they also can scour Chegg’s book options by texting a textbook ISBN or title to a designated number. The student will receive a responding text with a link to Chegg’s mobile web site, accessible on popular mobile devices like the iPhone and BlackBerry.

Chegg teamed up with digital messaging service Waterfall Mobile last year to launch the mobile-based version of Chegg’s online store. The service logged 269 student text messages in August 2009. In 2010, that number was skyrocketed to more than 20,000, according to a case study published by Waterfall Mobile and Chegg.

“Every student is on a mobile device a lot of the time, so texting is a major part of their world,” said Tina Couch, a spokeswoman for Chegg, a California-based company that launched in 2007 and serves about 6,400 campuses. “When you look at tuition costs and [textbook costs] going up … students are looking around for significant savings, and this is one way.”

The Chegg/Waterfall Mobile case study credits mobile technology for helping the book rental company find a “new way to engage with a hard-to-reach and constantly moving base of student customers.”

Matthew Silk, senior vice president of Waterfall Mobile, said he expects text inquiries to steadily rise as the visibility of online book rental services grows on college campuses nationwide.

“This industry is in a boom cycle, and you’ll see that kind of growth continue because the price of textbooks has become outrageous,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense to take the web services [of online rental companies] and mobilize that service … for students’ accessibility and convenience.”

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 price of books tripled between 1986 and 2004, rising more than 5 percent every year, according to national statistics. Students are increasingly charging their textbooks to credit cards, adding to debt that could hurt after graduation, according to a study by Sallie Mae, the country’s biggest college lender.

The climbing cost of textbooks hasn’t only drawn criticism from student activist groups; book costs have also drawn the ire of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who proposed and help pass legislation aimed at trimming students’ annual textbook bill.

The new federal law’s provision requiring colleges and universities to provide lists of assigned textbooks for each course—including prices and ISBNs—will give students time to shop around the internet and local book stores for the best deal, instead of having to order the book within a week or two of the start of each semester.

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, Couch said.

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