Classes have just started up again. At the Portland State Bookstore, a line of customers loops around the store, through the aisles and down the staircase.
They’re waiting to pay for books they are buying or renting, a back-to-school ritual for thousands of PSU students each term.
Textbook rental is at an all-time high, according to bookstore staff, since the bookstore now offers a rental option on all textbooks.
Is renting the best way to save money on books?
Representatives from the bookstore admit it’s not always cost-effective.
Introduced in winter 2011, the rental option allows a student to rent a textbook for the term at a lower cost than buying. The student then has the option of either returning the textbook at the end of the term or buying the book for the difference of the rental and purchase cost.
There are times when renting the book, purchasing it at the end of the term and then immediately selling it back to the bookstore costs significantly less than renting alone. Students assuming it’s cheaper to rent and return can unknowingly lose money.
When the Vanguard asked Nebraska Book Company, new operator of the PSU Bookstore, why it allows for scenarios like this, Area Vice President Courtney Gruber said it’s all about giving customers choices.
“We provide as many options as we can,” Gruber said.
“No risk” rental has risks
According to Gruber, Nebraska’s rental program is advertised as “no risk,” since it allows the student to either return the textbook or buy it at the end of the term for the cost difference. This protects the student from a case in which a new edition is released and he or she would not be able to sell the book back. The other options offered by the bookstore are to buy new, or used if it is available.
“Every student is different; that’s why we have three options,” Gruber said.
She pointed to the English 100 course at PSU as an example of where rental is clearly saving students money. In that course, a student can rent the textbook for exactly half the price of a new copy. Even if the student were to purchase and then sell the book back for the buyback price currently listed on the bookstore’s website, they are still saving $16 by renting the textbook.
However, this savings doesn’t exist for many of the options in the bookstore catalog. The textbook for Psychology 200, another popular course, is currently listed on the bookstore’s website as $29 cheaper to rent than to buy. However if students did not exercise their option to buy the book and immediately sell it back to the bookstore, they would lose $20 by renting.
Ken Brown, general manager of the PSU Bookstore, also admits that stand-alone rental is not always the most cost-effective option.
“The best option in terms of total economic impact is to buy used and sell it back,” Brown said.
Brown said the most common behavior of students, however, is simply keeping their books. The bookstore only gets back 10 to 20 percent of the books it sells, Brown said, though this statistic doesn’t account for students selling their books to sources outside the bookstore.
Sarah Bachenberg, text manager at the PSU Bookstore, said that many books in the catalog can be more expensive to rent than to sell back.
Bachenberg recommended rental for students who would like a slight up-front discount on their books, since the “no risk” guarantee allows students to later purchase them in full. She also said rental does not make sense if a student will need the book for multiple terms. Additionally, if an edition goes out of print during the term when a student uses it, the bookstore will not buy it back.
“[Nebraska] sets prices for rentals; there may be a slight decrease in the winter,” she said.
When should a student rent?
Karey Koehn, a spokesperson for Nebraska, said it is difficult to tell when a book will go out of print and whether the bookstore will buy it back. It depends on the professor, who chooses how quickly to adopt new editions, or on the school, which may opt to eliminate the textbook’s course, she explained. Additionally, sometimes new editions are not adopted by professors and, therefore, will still be used at the store.
“There are instances where [rental] can save money,” she said, “but there are instances where it may not be cost-effective.” She emphasized that the discussion of whether a student should rent or resell a textbook is complicated due to factors such as new editions and fluctuating buyback prices.
“Situationally, it’s really hard to make a blanket statement,” Koehn said.