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College textbooks: how to spend less this year

College students looking to save money on textbook costs now have a bevy of options, including a new rental program from Amazon.

By Husna Haq / August 8, 2012

Amazon Textbook Rental allows students to return the books they rent at the end of 130 days. The company says that renters can write or highlight in the books “a minimal amount” without being charged.

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Heard the one about textbook prices? You don’t need Accounting 101 to learn about bankruptcy. Just walk into a campus bookstore.

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Textbook prices may be a joke, but for students entering college this fall, buying textbooks is no joking matter. The average American student spends between $700 and $1,000 per year on textbooks, according to a US Department of Education study. And that’s after students – or, more likely, their parents – have dished up for tuition, room and board, meal plans, lab fees, extracurricular fees, and a laundry list of other expenses.

There’s good news. Amazon is trying to take some of the sting out of textbook sticker shock with its new textbook rental program. Under Amazon’s new program, students can rent textbooks for 130-day periods, about the length of a semester, then ship the textbooks back to Amazon at no cost. Amazon says its rental program offers up to 70 percent savings on textbooks compared with retail purchase prices.

“College is expensive, and students are always looking for ways to save money on textbooks,” Ripley MacDonald, Director of Textbooks at Amazon.com, said in a statement. “With Textbook Rental, Amazon gives students yet another great option for saving money – it's now easier than ever for students to get the books they need, in the format they want, at affordable prices.”

Most titles are available for rental at Amazon in the $30 to $60 range, according to PCMag, which found one macroeconomics textbook that retails for $170 available for rental on Amazon for about $46.

Here’s how it works. Textbooks (new or used, depending on availability) are shipped at standard prices and students may pay a fee for one 15-day extension after their 130-day rental period is over before shipping the book back to Amazon at no cost. If students fail to return the book after the extension, they will be charged the full price of the book. Amazon said renters can write or highlight in the books “a minimal amount,” but if books are returned with “excessive writing or highlighting,” students will be charged the full price of the book, minus rental fees.

This isn’t the only option for cash-strapped students. Last summer, Amazon unveiled its Kindle Textbook Rental service, which allows students to rent textbooks on their Kindles or Kindle apps for 30 to 360 days.

Earlier this year, Apple joined the e-textbook trend with the launch of iBooks2, which brings textbooks to the iPad.

Other smaller, enterprising companies have been offering textbook rentals for years, including CampusBookRentals.com, Chegg.com, and BookRenter.com. They advertise savings of up to 90 percent.

We’re excited about PostYourBook.com, a social networking site that connects users so they can buy, sell, and exchange textbooks directly from one another.

In a recent article, Buffalo News business reporter Matthew Parrino offers a bevy of savvy ways to save on college textbooks, including this gem: “Save your receipts. The American Opportunity Tax Credit may be available to students who qualify because of textbook and other out-of-pocket higher educational expenses,” reports Parrino. “Students can save up to $2,500 on their 2012 federal taxes and up to 40 percent is refundable. The full $2,500 is available to those who pay $4,000 or more in qualified expenses for an eligible student.”

Our Econ 101 professor – the one who told us anyone who actually bought the $200 Econ 101 textbook automatically failed his econ course – may have to change his tune soon. If Amazon, Chegg, and PostYourBook have any say in the matter, jokes like that will be fast outdated.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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