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Amid escalating concerns about the affordability of a college education, a new survey has found that a growing number of campus bookstores are rolling out textbook rental programs that can offer students potentially substantial savings.

In the fall of 2011, 2,560 college bookstores allowed students to rent textbooks in print format, up from 2,200 the previous year and about 300 in the fall of 2009, according to the National Association of College Stores.

NACS public relations director Charles Schmidt said that students can save between 45 percent and 66 percent through the rental programs compared to purchasing new editions of their books, and that rental programs can at times even offer cheaper access to course materials than digital formats.

College affordability impacted by textbook cost

The rise in textbook rental programs comes as colleges and universities have come under fire for a sharp rise in tuition costs that has dramatically outpaced the rate of inflation, putting college out of reach for some students while saddling others with hefty loan debt upon graduation. The total debt load Americans carry from student loans now exceeds the aggregate burden from credit card debt, and the average student graduated from college in 2010 with $24,000 in student loan debt.

President Obama highlighted the issue of college affordability in last week's State of the Union address, and amplified that message in a speech three days later, calling on Congress to take action to prevent interest rates on student loans from rising and to extend a tuition tax credit, as well as appealing to colleges to rein in the costs of tuition and other expenses.

"If tuition is going up faster than inflation, faster than even health care is going up, no matter how much we subsidize it, sooner or later, we're going to run out of money," Obama told an audience of mostly students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "And that means that others have to do their part. Colleges and universities need to do their part to keep costs down as well."

Textbooks may only be a microcosm of the broader issue of college affordability, but the money at stake is significant. According to NACS, college students estimate that they pay around $655 annually on required course materials, and textbook rental programs saved students nationwide an estimated $200 million in the most recent semester.

The 20 Million Minds Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting more affordable course materials, pegs the average annual textbook cost at $1,260, nearly twice the NACS estimate.

According to the Association of American Publishers, college textbook sales amounted to $4.5 billion in net revenue in 2010, up 23 percent since 2008. K-12 publishing, meanwhile, reached $5.5 billion in net sales revenue in 2010.

Digital textbook alternatives gaining steam

This week, a joint California legislative committee is holding an oversight hearing to investigate the rising costs of college textbooks, a subject that has garnered headlines recently with Apple's launch of iBooks textbooks, a new textbook authoring tool for the popular iPad tablet.

Apple is rolling out the new tool with top textbook publishers on board, including McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson Education. Apple is positioning iBooks textbooks primarily for the K-12 segment, though the potential application for college textbooks is evident.

But even if Apple's designs on the higher education publishing segment remain unclear, plenty of other ventures have already sprung up in a bid to deliver less expensive, digital alternatives to traditional print editions.

NACS, for its part, remains adamant that print is still the medium of choice, and continues to push rental programs and other tips to keep costs down, such as saving receipts for college textbooks to take advantage of a recently enacted tax credit.

"With 75 percent of students still preferring the print version of a textbook over the digital, you have a situation where college stores are providing the students they serve what they want, at a price they can afford," Schmidt said. "Our members are committed to ensuring students have the academic tools they need to succeed -- no matter how accessed or in what format."

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