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College students rent textbooks to save money

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010

At the beginning of each semester, George Mason University Bookstore's general manager ventures into the school's mailroom and tries to figure out where everyone bought their books, because fewer and fewer students are coming into her store.

This year, the competition was easy to spot: bright orange boxes from chegg.com, which considers itself the Netflix of textbook rentals.

Chegg.com has rented more than 2 million books to students at more than 6,400 schools since it was launched nationally in 2007. Students can rent books by the semester, quarter or summer at rates that vary depending on the popularity of the title and when the semester starts. But the books are usually at least half off retail. Students hang on to the orange boxes and mail the rented books back at the end of the semester for free.

The site has gained popularity by infiltrating Twitter and Facebook, using student ambassadors who are paid $5 for every customer they recruit (one student has made more than $17,000) and promising to plant a tree for every book rented. It has also agreed to donate money to Haiti earthquake relief efforts for each order. "Students are very green, but they are also very socially aware," said Tina Couch, a spokeswoman for the company.

Students are also thrifty, especially with prices of textbooks steadily increasing and, in some cases, spiking because publishing companies have packaged the thick volumes with computer programs, workbooks or access codes to content-related Web sites. Estimates for a typical student's spending on textbooks range from $700 to $1,000 annually.

For years, some students have cobbled together their required reading lists by shopping for used or discounted books online, coordinating trades on Facebook and reading online class reviews to see whether they even need the book. Freshmen often spend the most because they haven't figured out where else to shop, said Lauren Morency, 20, a junior psychology major at Catholic University.

"Freshman year, I bought all my books from the bookstore. . . . I spent a little over a thousand dollars," she said. "I would be in the bookstore, and everyone around me would be talking about buying their books online instead. It's just a lot cheaper."

During her sophomore year, Morency bought several books on eBay's half.com and a few used titles at the bookstore, which saved her a little money. This year, she rented nearly everything on chegg.com, which cost her $400 last semester and about $270 this semester.

Many campus bookstores are trying to change their image and reclaim their customers by allowing students to order books online, speeding up checkout lines, marketing through social media and reminding students how convenient it is to buy on campus.

At the beginning of the school year, several of the largest bookstore operators began rental programs at a handful of campuses. Barnes & Noble, which operates 636 college bookstores, started the rental program at three schools and expanded it this semester to about two dozen more, including George Mason and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Barb Headley, the general manager of George Mason's bookstore, volunteered her store for the pilot program: "I told them, 'If there's anything that's out there for rentals, we want to do it.' Kids, they are getting smarter. If we don't give them a cheaper book, they will go elsewhere."

Of the store's more than 4,000 titles, 50 are available to rent, at 42.5 percent of the cost of a new book. All 50 are some of the country's most popular textbook titles, which are likely to be used by multiple classes.

For example, "Social Psychology" would cost about $142.65 new, $107 used, $99.86 as an e-book and about $60 as a rental. New and used books usually can be sold back at the end of a semester for a fraction of the initial cost, but students simply return rentals by the end of finals week. If they lose or severely damage a book, they are charged full price.

The rentals have been popular with students pre-ordering their books online, Headley said, but most students will not start buying their books until after classes start Tuesday.

For now, the rentals are one more option for students searching for the cheapest books. George Mason junior Alicia Long, a biology major, plans to borrow some books from friends, buy some online and rely on the bookstore for campus-specific lab manuals.

"It's so much work to find a cheap textbook," she said.

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