Gregory Dyer, a Villanova senior, stood in an aisle at his campus bookstore searching for his introduction-to-art textbook. He gasped. New, Living With Art would cost the English major $130. Used, it was a mere $97.50.
Then he noticed the bright orange label saying he could rent it for $21.99. Intrigued, he followed the signs to a Chegg.com iPad stand and punched in his rental order, adding the $6.99 for shipping.
"I saved 70 bucks!" he said.
Across the country, college students scavenging for affordable textbooks are beginning to realize that they have something in common with airline passengers. Same book, same destination, but some people pay full price, and some find bargains.
For years, students have relied on used copies and online purchases for relief from escalating textbook costs. But this semester, hundreds of thousands are benefiting from a convergence of new legislation encouraging professors to be aware of costs and a market-driven explosion in rental offerings.
"It's the biggest, hottest thing this year in college bookstores," said Frank Henninger, director of Villanova's campus bookstore. Last year, his shop rented not a single book. This year, it's renting 620 titles through a partnership with a national leader in the textbook rental business, Chegg.com.
"This groundswell of mass numbers of college bookstores renting books occurred like a rogue wave," he said.
In just two years, the number of campus bookstores offering rentals has jumped from a few dozen to 1,500, according to the National Association of College Stores.
Barnes & Noble, which operates 637 campus bookstores, including those at Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and Community College of Philadelphia, piloted six rental programs last fall. This year, more than 300 are renting textbooks, accounting for about 30 percent of sales on a given campus.
"It has exploded. It really has," said Jade Roth, vice president of books and digital strategy for Barnes & Noble College Booksellers.
Renting is among the cheapest of several options, Roth said, running down a typical cost breakdown. If your typical text costs $100 for a new edition, used will cost $75, an e-book - or digital version - $55, and a rental $45.
That option worked for Villanova student Paul Passariello, 21, a senior from Middletown, N.J. Passariello, a business major, thought he might have to spend $400 for two books: Strategic Management and Auditing and Assurance Services.
Instead, he rented them online at the bookstore for $150.
Not exactly a steal, he said, but "the lesser of two evils."
The rental boom is fueled by pressure from Congress to rein in textbook costs. Legislation that took effect July 1 requires publishers to tell professors the price of the books they are ordering, and mandates that colleges include textbook costs in Internet course schedules. That way, students will have plenty of time to shop for cheaper editions.
The law, part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, also requires publishers to make clear what is different in each edition, which may dampen professors' tendency to order the latest, and most expensive, version.
"This will give professors the opportunity to make a choice," said State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., West Chester), who has sponsored a bill that echoes the federal legislation.
" 'Is it worth it, or can I supplement this with Internet materials and new readings from the library?' Right now they automatically assume the new edition will have the latest materials."
Nicole Allen of the advocacy organization Student Public Interest Research Groups said that in a survey of 300 professors, 77 percent said publishers rarely mentioned the price of the book when taking orders.
"The textbook market is kind of an anomaly," Allen said. "The people who are choosing the books don't actually have to buy them, so they are not as economically motivated as students would be."
Her group estimates students have been spending $900 a year on books - reflecting price increases in textbooks four times the pace of inflation over the last 20 years.
At Temple University's bookstore Monday, the first day of class, bewildered first-year students wandered the aisles trying to figure out what to do.
Freshman Breland Moore had budgeted $200 for her books. She didn't realize she could rent, so she preordered online with the campus bookstore a week before classes, clicking the "used" option in every category.
When the Reading native opened her box after waiting in line for 11/2 hours, she found that none of the six were used. Price tag? $425.
And she still had three more to buy.
Five aisles away, Maria Toews, a transfer student from Messiah College near Harrisburg, considered her options. Russian Grammar in Literary Contexts cost $102. There were no used copies. It was not for rent. Toews had a total of $300 - to last until she got her first paycheck, which would be after she found a job. She left the bookstore without making the purchase.
A group of Penn graduates may have come up with a price-comparison site for the stressed student shopper: the Expedia.com of textbook sites.
Book.ly searches 20 book providers to help students find the cheapest price.
It's the brainchild of Book.ly chief executive officer Roman Pedan, 22, a computer science and business major who as an undergraduate combed the Web each semester to find the best deal. The cumbersome process ate hours of his time but saved hundreds of dollars.
Last year, for his senior design project, he worked with his brother to create a website that expedites the search. Students can punch in the title or ISBN number of their books to find new, used, rented, or e-books at a wide range of prices.
Temple senior Brittany Hadfield of West Chester discovered the site last year and saved so much money she wrote the website to thank it - twice.
"I have to tell you how much I love Book.ly. . . . It's my go-to site! Seriously. It's so fabulous! I tell everyone about it! Thanks for the great tip. . . . This site is awesome :)"
Like many others in academe, Jan Duggar, dean of the business school at Holy Family University, wonders whether the traditional textbook will soon be moot.
"I don't know where it's going, but I think five years from now we'll be using mostly online sources for our students," he said.
So far, digital readers such as the Kindle and iPad don't work well for e-texts, he said, but that could change as software improves.
"I bet you'll be able to highlight, click the highlighted items, pull them into notes, and you're ready to study for your quiz," Duggar said.
Noting the upheaval in the textbook market, Henninger, at Villanova, thinks the end of the textbook will come faster than most imagine.
Already, many elementary school students do not use textbooks, he said, but computers and laptops preloaded with course material.
"Those students will arrive at college in six years and may never have read a textbook," Henninger said. "When they think of a bound book, they think of Harry Potter. They think, 'Textbooks? It's on my laptop, right?' "
But for Villanova graduate student Samantha Grayson and her mother, who was paying the tab, the impending revolution in the textbook market won't come soon enough.
At the bookstore checkout counter Monday, the two watched the prices for Grayson's seven required books flash before them: $141, $128, $156, and so on, all important reference books for a paralegal career. The bottom line: $782.70.
Her mom put it on her Visa.
The many prices of Strategic Management, by Michael A. Hitt, R. Duane Ireland, and Robert E. Hoskisson, including shipping.
biblio.com (intl. edition) $45.75
ebay.com (used) 47.88
Chegg.com (rental) 86.48
ecampus.com (used) 88.43
cengage.com (rental) 100.98
amazon.com (new) 153.94
half.com (new) 183.98
ecampus.com (new) 211.71