By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor

Ask any college student and they’ll tell you: "Books cost too much.” The College Board says the average student at a four-year public college should expect to spend $1,137 this year on textbooks and other course materials.

“Books cost a ridiculous amount of money,” says April Wade, a student at the University of Rhode Island, who has paid as much as $160 for a single book.

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Textbook costs are rising far faster than inflation. A new analysis by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) shows textbooks prices have increased 22 percent during the last four years.

Textbook prices have been cited as one of the reasons many students drop out of the California community college system.

“The entire cost of college, including textbooks, is going up so quickly that families cannot plan for the expenses,” says California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott.

Faced with skyrocketing textbook prices, many students simply don’t buy some of the books they need. Student PIRGs surveyed 1,900 undergraduates on 13 campuses and found that 70 percent said they had decided not to buy one or more of their assigned textbooks because of cost.

“Students are already struggling with the rising cost of tuition and living expenses and textbooks can end up being the straw the broke the camel’s back,” says Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate with the Student PIRGs.

Here’s the good news. There are ways to significantly reduce the cost of these books. Used books are the traditional money-saving option, but many required textbooks are not available on the used market. In some cases, e-books are the answer. But paper books are still the format of choice. So many savvy students now rent their textbooks.

“Renting is normally cheaper than buying used. And they guarantee to take it back when you’re done with it,” says Sami Main, a sophomore at the University of Florida at Gainesville. For the coming semester, she rented several $40 books for just $10.

Demand rising for rental books
The first major textbook rental sites were launched about four years ago. Chegg.com, one of the leading companies in the market, was founded in 2007 by a student at Iowa State who had a hard time paying for his books.

“It’s sort of like Netflix for textbooks,” says Chegg spokeswoman Tina Warner. “Textbook renting has now proven to be a successful model that is here to stay.”

Competition is growing. Sites such as BookRenter.com, half.com, TextbookRentals.com, CampusBookRentals.com, ecampus.com, CollegeBookRenter.com and ValoreBooks.com, just to name a few, specialize in textbook rentals. Even Amazon and Barnes & Noble have entered the market.

Students rent the books they need for a quarter, a semester or even a few weeks in some cases and return them when they’re done. The price varies by title and the length of the rental.

“Usually we can save you somewhere between 60 and 80 percent off the new book price,” says Michael Geller, BookRenter.com’s vice president of marketing.

Student April Wade, who uses BookRenter, loves the service.

“I save half or more off the new book price and I can regulate what I pay for the book. I might not need it the entire semester, so I can send it back a lot earlier, which cuts the cost even more.”

Chegg and BookRenter check the books before they’re shipped to make sure they are in good shape. Students I’ve spoken say they’ve never had a problem with quality.

“We allow for light highlighting and light note taking done in pencil in the margins,” says Chegg’s Tina Warner. “We haven’t had any problem with the quality of the books. The students take good care of them.”

BookRenter’s Geller tells me many customers request pre-highlighted books. The company does not offer that option. In fact, a lot of the books they send out are brand new.

BookRenter has partnered with 500 colleges and universities, both big and small, to power their textbook rentals.

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“This makes it easy for students to find out what books they need and how much they’ll cost to buy or rent,” says Shirley Landis, president of the campus bookstore at Philadelphia University. “Textbook prices are exorbitant, and we’re looking for any way that we can to reduce those costs.”

The book store at the University of Washington started offering textbook rentals via BookRenter a year ago.

“All the feedback has been great,” says Lara Konik, director of marketing at the University Book Store.

Story: 12 ways to go back to school (and not to the poorhouse)

Last week, the store unveiled a new textbook price comparison tool on its website, allowing UW students to do a single search and get pricing on new, used, digital and rental textbooks from the campus bookstore and online retailers.

“The way students are shopping is changing," Konik said. "What’s available to them is changing, and we really see our role in serving the university as making that process as easy as possible.”

I priced a book called “Ecology” that is required for an upper-level UW Biology course. I could buy it from the UW bookstore new for $151.50 or used for $102.28. I could also rent it for 90 days for $41.91. Rental prices for 21 days at various online outlets ranged from $53 (quality unknown) to $135.49 (like new).

The lesson is clear. To get the best price on textbooks you need to shop around. The best deal may be at your school’s bookstore or it may be online. A quick online search could save you a bundle.

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Video: Back-to-school sales trends

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Home equity type Today +/- Chart
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