An amendment passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives would budget $50 million for textbook rental pilot programs at 10 public colleges. The budget is part of the overhauled Higher Education Act, which regulates finances and policies in national colleges and universities.

The amendment authorizes Congress to fund the program through the Department of Education. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) sponsored the legislation, which passed unanimously in a voice vote.

“It gets us into an innovative mindset as we try to address the cost of college education,” Ryan said in a discussion on the House floor. “One of the key factors in the increase in the cost of a college education is textbooks.”

The provision received bipartisan support and is still awaiting approval by a joint committee of the Senate and House.

Colleges and universities would have to apply to participate in the pilot programs. Participating schools would have to evaluate how the program could be implemented and then report their findings. The Department of Education would compile and report the information to Congress by November 2010.

Ryan’s press secretary, Brad Bauman, said Ryan hopes that schools of all sizes will participate. Bauman cites a pilot program that started at Bowling Green State University this semester which allows students in select classes to rent books. Bowling Green students paid just 35 percent of each book’s retail price through the program.

“The hope is that we see dramatic decreases in the cost of college textbooks and we can use that as a jumping point to create a much larger college textbook rental program,” Bauman said.

Gretchen Weir, the University of Michigan’s assistant vice provost for academic affairs and a member of the University’s Textbook Task Force, said it’s unlikely the University would participate in the federal pilot program. Instead, the decision will be left up to individual schools or departments, she said.

“Perhaps LSA would decide to do it, or Engineering would want to do it,” Weir said.

Several colleges and universities have already implemented similar programs, but many larger schools, including the University, have held out because of the high costs involved in starting a textbook rental program. For a school the size of the University, initial costs would be about $15 million.

The University’s task force, formed last year by the Office of the Provost, looked briefly at the possibility of renting textbooks to students. The task force determined that a rental program wouldn’t work for students or the University.

“We are not the kind of institution where there is a single text for Intro to Psychology or Economics 101,” Weir said. “We don’t have a precedent for faculty being required to stick to a particular text. It wouldn’t be compatible with our particular culture.”

Ryan said the pilot programs would be used to evaluate the unique situations faced by individual schools.

“This is an opportunity for us to figure out what pilot programs work – what is best for a big school, and what is best for a smaller school – but also an opportunity to figure out how we can save these students money,” he said.

Statistics Prof. Brenda Gunderson, chair of the task force, said the University will consider participating in the pilot program.

“There truly has not been any foundation laid to look into rental programs specifically, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t,” Gunderson said. “We were more interested in looking at things that can be done immediately.”

Weir said the task force decided giving students more ways to buy and sell used books would be more effective in reducing costs.

“When we had the textbook task force, we concluded, for Michigan, that the best way to reduce costs was to create an active used book market,” Weir said.

Beginning this term, students will be able to access a book exchange database through CTools. The service, called uBook, will allow students to list books they want to buy and sell.

The online marketplace, Weir said, will allow students to pay less for textbooks and also maintain ownership of their books. If students had to rent books, they wouldn’t be able to write in them, she said.

“A lot of Michigan students want to be able to really own the book,” Weir said. “They want to write in the book, they want to highlight.”

Rep. Ric Keller (R—Fla.) spoke in support of the amendment on the House floor. He said Congress and colleges should be doing something to lower costs for students, but he wasn’t sure whether instructors, publishers or booksellers were responsible for the high price tags on books.

“All I know is we’ve got to get some relief to these college and law school and graduate students who are forced to buy particular books,” Keller said. “This seems to at least try, and whatever we can do to try to help these kids who are spending $900 to $2,000 a year, we owe it to them.”

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