College textbooks tend to cost students hundreds of dollars each semester, but this year at Clarkson University, Potsdam, that number may be cut in half.
The university has joined the ever-increasing ranks of schools that let students rent textbooks.
The policy is not new to the north country; SUNY Canton has been renting out a limited number of books since 2009 and plans to expand the offerings next year, and other schools say they're exploring the option.
"It's the students that were asking for this," said Kristine A. Nolan, regional manager for Follett, the company that manages Clarkson's bookstore. "A student would pay up to 50 percent off the list price; for a $100 book, you're probably paying $42 to $50."
The move comes as the landscape surrounding the college-textbook industry is changing.
In addition to rented textbooks, a new federal law requires publishers to provide textbook price information to professors and calls on colleges to identify course textbooks during registration, giving students more time to shop around. Additionally, free online textbooks and less-expensive digital versions of textbooks are steps in the right direction, experts say.
"Change is coming, but it's not going to happen immediately," said David Lewis, dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis University Library and assistant vice president for digital scholarly communications at Indiana University.
"If you're in junior high school, you can be sure it'll be better. If you're in high school, there's a shot. If you're starting college as a freshman, you might see it as a senior. It's on more and more people's agenda."
Only about a third of the books in Clarkson's bookstore are available for rent, Ms. Nolan said.
At SUNY Canton, where the college bookstore also is managed by Follett, textbook rentals for about 10 courses were available last semester, and about 150 students took advantage, according to spokesman Gregory E. Kie.
Clarkson switched to Follett from Barnes & Noble over the summer. Follett manages about 800 college bookstores, and about 700 schools are using the program this fall, Ms. Nolan said. The bookstore at North Country Community College, Saranac Lake, also is under Follett management, but does not take advantage of the rental option.
SUNY Canton has had a limited number of textbooks available for rent since last fall, when Follett began offering the rental program to a limited number of its customers. SUNY Canton is in the middle of a two-year pilot program, which likely will be converted into a permanent policy next year, Mr. Kie said.
Textbook rentals work nearly the same way as selling a used book back to the college bookstore at the end of the year, except a student knows the book will be taken back.
Neither St. Lawrence University, Canton, nor SUNY Potsdam has a rental policy, but both schools said they are considering the program, especially since the cost of college texts continues to rise.
According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, college textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades, though not as dramatically as tuition.
In 2008, Congress responded by including textbook-affordability provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
Along with the price-disclosure clause meant to push professors toward cheaper options, it requires publishers to offer textbooks separately from extra items like workbooks and CDs. The practice of "bundling" products leads to markups of 10 percent to 50 percent and makes books harder to sell, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, which pressed for the reforms.
To implement a textbook rental program, a professor has to commit to using a specific edition of a book for several years, something that some faculty members seem reluctant to do because it means they have less academic freedom, according to Janet L. Robbins, textbook manager at SUNY Potsdam's bookstore.
"It's a mixed bag on campus; I think it's more an interest on the students' side. I do anticipate that we will delve into that in the future," Ms. Robbins said. "I don't know if it's going to be in time for the spring semester or if we'll put it in next year."
At St. Lawrence University, many classes have cheaper paperbacks instead of traditional textbooks. For those kinds of books, a rental program does not make much sense, Brewer Bookstore manger Robert D. FitzRandolf said.
"I know it's a hot topic right now, but at this point, we're not considering it," he said. "Ultimately, we probably will be doing that. The whole book business is so uncertain that we don't really know."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.