When Hope Hardy started school this week at Texas Christian University, the pre-med sophomore joined a growing trend -- she rented textbooks.
"I'm on scholarship, but I still have to pay for books," said Hardy, a neuroscience major from Quitman.
Hardy said she used several strategies to save money on textbooks. After buying some books from friends, and others online, she rented the remaining three books at a deep discount.
Her total cost for the rentals was around $100 through BookRenter.com, which offers free shipping to students.
"I saved a lot -- hundreds of dollars," she said.
Renting textbooks has grown rapidly the past few years as students find it cheaper than buying new or even used. This month, Amazon.com began a textbook rental program similar to smaller established services.
In addition, most college bookstores now offer some type of rental program, according to the National Association of College Stores.
"The number of college stores offering textbook rental over the past three years has skyrocketed from only about 300 in 2009 to nearly all of our more than 3,000 college store members," said Charles Schmidt, association spokesman. "Rental is the preferred format of 74 percent of students we surveyed."
College bookstores n Texas are following the trend. BookRenter.com, which operates under the name Rafter in campus bookstores, has partnered with 200 stores nationwide, including 29 in Texas. Among the schools with the service are the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M.
"It's been a challenge for bookstores," said Sara Leoni, vice president of e-commerce for BookRenter.com. "Over time, they have lost market share. They partnered with us to provide a better value proposition to their students."
The bookstores at TCU, SMU, Rice and 35 other Texas schools also have rental programs through partnerships with Barnes & Noble.
B&N announced this month that it has expanded its nationwide textbook rental program, which began in 2010 with 25 campus bookstores, to 657 stores.
The rental agreements attract students to the bookstore, Schmidt said.
"Most people don't realize that for every $1 a textbook sells for, the bookstore makes just 4 cents," he said. "Buying or renting textbooks is a way to bring foot traffic in to buy other school items."
The savings can be substantial. For example, at UT's bookstore, a new copy of The Principles of Economics will run you $290.65, and a used copy costs $218. But a 125-day rental is just $58.23.
In a survey by the National Association of College Stores, students estimated that they spend $655 annually on required course materials, down from $702 four years ago. Schmidt said much of the savings is due to an increase in book rentals.
The rental process is easy and mostly online. Students can search for their books by title or by the International Standard Book Number and set the length of the rental agreement (usually 15 to 125 days). They type in where they want the books delivered and their credit card information.
Most companies offer free shipping both ways and include a shipping label for returns.
Processing and shipping typically take about a week. Some offer students an option to pick up and drop off at their campus bookstore.
While policies vary, most companies allow students to highlight and mark in the book.
"Some of our students actually ask for a highlighted copy," Leoni said.
TCU student Hardy said she found the previously highlighted version of her rental textbook helpful last semester.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net