The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Bellevue College a $783,000 grant to pilot “The 21st Century Bookstore,” a new strategy to lower costs for college students by renting out netbook laptops preloaded with electronic textbooks.

It could save a full-time student as much as $600 per year.

The program, which is initially targeted to low-income students, will save each participant at least 60 percent — guaranteed — off the cost of the equivalent hard-copy materials.

“Textbook prices have risen so high that it’s not uncommon for students to pay $1,000 or more for books every year,” said Kristen Connely, Director of the Bellevue College bookstore. “A 60 percent savings on that is a substantial amount of money.”

The quarterly rental fee of $35 will include the netbook and digital class materials for one course. Students may rent additional titles for further savings.

The two-year pilot project will serve 500 students per quarter beginning September 2011.

Awarded through the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), the grant will underwrite project startup costs, including purchase of digital course materials, software, netbooks and other equipment.

Once underway, the project is expected to be fully self-sustaining financially.

The program will funnel two types of savings to students:  savings achieved by using digital materials, which are less expensive than their printed counterparts, and savings from renting, rather than buying, the materials.

The rental fee for the netbook and software, together, will be far less than the cost to buy the digital materials, alone.

The program will also help solve another issue that bars many low-income individuals from attending college:  lack of convenient access to the Internet.

With the ongoing shift toward electronic texts and introduction of more online content by instructors, immediate Internet access has essentially become a requirement for college success. Yet more than one-third of all Washington’s college and university students lack such access, according to an article in the June 14, 2009, issue of the (Spokane) Spokesman Review.

The “21st Century Bookstore” project builds on Bellevue College’s success as one

of the first among all colleges and universities in the nation to provide textbook rental service to students.

The college launched its first rental project in 2006 with hard-copy course materials. It expanded the program and proved the concept’s financial sustainability under a 2009 grant from FIPSE.

Bellevue College is the only college or university in the nation to have been awarded support under both rounds of FIPSE funding for textbook rental pilot projects.

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