Books for Rent

With wallet out, credit card in hand, Modesto Junior College student Taylor White tried in earnest to find the best deals on textbooks for the spring semester. White can buy his texts at MJC's bookstore or online, or try a newer approach -- renting.

Two Web sites, www.chegg.com and www.bookrenter.com, allow college students to rent textbooks cheaply instead of shell out hundreds of dollars on books they must keep or sell back for pennies on the dollar.

White, a political science student, is taking five classes this semester and needs nine books, three of them textbooks.

Of the texts, one wasn't available for rent through chegg.com, one was MJC-specific and the other White ordered from chegg.com for $27.99 used, with an extra $7.98 for shipping and handling. The same political science text went for $74 new and $55.50 used at MJC's bookstore.

Though he found only one of the three textbooks at chegg.com, White said he'd recommend the site.

"I suppose some people could save a lot of money on there," he said.

Textbook rental Web sites let students look up books and rent them for one term, much like checking out books at a library. Students can choose from new and used books and can even pay more if they decide to keep the book.

With little competition, local college students have few choices when buying their textbooks. The majority purchase books at their campus bookstore or online and spend hundreds of dollars on books they'll typically use for 15 weeks or less. At the end of the term, they'll sell books back to the college, but usually for a fraction of the original price -- if colleges buy them back at all.

On average, a full-time student at a four-year university spends almost $900 on textbooks each year, or about 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Students at two-year colleges spend a similar amount, though books are a much larger chunk -- 72 percent -- of their college costs.

Students worry about getting their books shipped to them on time and in good condition, but rental programs can fill a niche, they said.

MJC nursing student Gaston Ramirez used chegg.com to rent an anatomy book. At MJC's bookstore, the book sold for $166 new; Ramirez rented it for $28 and received the book four days after he placed his order.

"Financially and everything else, (renting) makes sense," he said. "I use the (MJC) bookstore a lot because it's convenient. But once school starts, you'll wait in line for an hour to buy books. And you have to wait in line to sell them back. ... (You) get such a tiny fraction of what you spent that it's not worth the wait in line."

No rental programs in region

Some more established or larger colleges have their own textbook rental programs, but the University of California at Merced; California State University, Stanislaus; and MJC don't.

White said he's working with faculty to start one at MJC, but that's a year or so down the road. He encourages students to shop around at their campus bookstores, amazon.com and the rental sites.

After looking up the books required by each instructor, students can use the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) to search chegg.com or bookrenter.com to check rental availability.

"Rental is good for people who won't even look at their books again," White said. "I can see people keeping books if it's important to their major, like keeping an anatomy book if they're going to be a nurse. But if it's an art history class and you're a business administration major, it's not that important."

When students rent books from chegg.com, they're given a deadline to return the book. Renters are allowed to highlight text in the books, but will be charged for excessive markings. Books are sent back with a prepaid label included in the original shipping charge.

Chegg started in 2003 as a textbook exchange, an expansion of a book rental program at Iowa State University. It serves tens of thousands of students at more than 1,000 U.S. colleges by offering more than 2 million books for rent.

BookRenter was founded in 2004 by Santa Clara University alum Colin Barceloux, who was irritated by the high cost of books. More than 1.25 million books are available through the site.

Barceloux said the alternative is picking up steam because rental companies are getting access to a large number of books and students are more comfortable with getting books online.

"We've eliminated the middleman -- the bookstore -- and replaced them with the Internet," Barceloux said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.