Greer Begbie is concerned primarily about one thing when shopping for her son's college textbooks: price.
The southern New Jersey mother, whose son Chris is a junior finance major at Towson University, scours Web sites, including Half.com and Amazon.com, for the best deals. She almost always buys used books. She says new, full-price textbooks are too expensive.
"It's a rip-off," Begbie said. "You can end up paying way too much."
The cost of college textbooks has been an issue for years. But as students head back to school, they and their parents have more alternatives than ever to the traditional campus bookstore. Web sites are selling books for half-price or less. Other sites rent textbooks for less than the cost of buying. Legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year is expected to ease some of the costs, though it doesn't require bookstores to lower prices.
The Government Accountability Office found that textbook prices increased 186 percent from 1986 to 2004, while inflation rose 72 percent. The GAO said textbooks and supplies for full-time students at four-year universities ran about $898 in 2004. National Internet movements, such as Maketextbooksaffordable.org, are pushing to bring costs down.
University bookstores are having to adapt to stay competitive. The bookstore at Towson University, for instance, revamped its price list after losing $500,000 in sales last year. There are more used books on the shelves as the bookstore works more closely with professors on deciding what books will be used for classes. The bookstore is considering renting out books.
The College of Southern Maryland tested a rental program of its own last year and expanded it because it was successful.
In the meantime, an Internet movement is slowly growing to help students beat the rising costs of textbooks. The latest is in the proliferation of sites that rent books. Chegg.com rents out textbooks at a savings of 65 percent to 85 percent of what it would cost to buy new.
"The textbook problem has existed for students for a long time," said Jim Safka, CEO of Chegg.com. "The difference is when I was in school, there was no Internet and no other alternatives to buy books."
Campusbookrentals.com was started by Alan Martin after he became frustrated with book costs while working on a master's degree at Weber State University in Utah. He said students save an average of 50 percent to 60 percent by renting textbooks. They send books back in an envelope with prepaid postage that the company sends after a book is rented.
"Every student feels the frustration of paying for books," said Martin, whose site serves 4,000 campuses across the country. "You can muster up the money to pay tuition, but it just doesn't seem right to pay so much for books. "
Bookfinder.com recently started a service that allows students to comparison shop by showing the price of a book on various Internet sites.
State Sen. James C. Rosapepe, who represents an area that includes College Park and the University of Maryland, said high textbook costs are caused in part by lack of competition. Rosapepe, who co-sponsored legislation designed to lower textbook costs, said a small number of bookstores and publishers have long had a near-monopoly on the textbook market. Some bookstores sign exclusive agreements with book companies, such as Barnes & Noble, that make it hard for others to compete.
The legislation, which the Assembly passed this year, encourages professors to consider whether older editions of books, which are more likely to be available used and thus are cheaper, can be assigned for a course. It also tells them to make sure that all parts of a "bundle," which includes textbook and supplemental materials, will be used in a class. It also requires bookstores to release the ISBN (each book's unique identifying number) in time for students to comparison shop. It is unclear how much money the legislation will save students.
"Will it create huge price changes? I don't think so," Rosapepe said. "Will it help modify prices? It could."
Campus bookstores say they are often made out to be the bad guys in the debate over textbook prices. They contend that publishers control book prices and that the stores operate on slim margins. Store managers say they have to make a profit to keep stores running. Money from campus bookstores also is used to fund school initiatives.
"We are trying to do what we can to make it as painless as possible for students," said Rosemary Epperson, director of the University Store at Towson.
Marcy Gannon, manager of the store at the College of Southern Maryland, said publishers sometimes raise the price of a textbook a few times a year.
"We have no control over it," she said.
Besides the rental program, the bookstore has instituted textbook sale days and is offering digital books, Gannon said. She said the campus began working more closely with professors before the state legislation was passed. It has also kept shipping costs on online orders stable even though the costs have gone up.
But even as bookstores work on ways to keep students buying, they'll have a hard time earning their loyalty.
Phillip Lester and Elisabeth Flood, both Towson University seniors from Elkton, said the campus bookstore is the last place they will buy their books.
Both said they prefer to shop at the Towson Book Exchange, an off-campus bookstore, because it is cheaper. They also shop at Half.com. They said they had not heard about rental options, but that that sounded like another good alternative.
Helen Sundqvist said she likes the convenience of the campus bookstore. The 22-year-old sophomore from Sweden ordered all her books via the Internet at the Towson bookstore.
"It's easy," said Sundqvist, who is majoring in political science. "The prices can be expensive. But it is what it is."
Don't want to buy from your campus bookstore? Try these sites: