It came down to convenience versus saving money, and for Derek Stein, a Robert Morris University senior who says college already is expensive enough, the choice was easy.
That's why, on a raw and rainy night this week, he traded the comfort of his dorm room for the campus library to crack open a textbook that the university had purchased and placed on reserve beside other required texts so students could avoid spending so much on books.
"My parents are helping out, so I try to reduce expenses for them as much as I can. This really helps," said Mr. Stein, 21, a finance major from Dorrance, outside Wilkes-Barre, during a break from his reading. "I just do the work here, go back home and I'm done."
So far, about one in five Robert Morris undergraduates has taken advantage of a new university-wide program in which books are purchased and kept for use in high demand courses in varied fields such as biology, accounting, literature and psychology.
Under the program's rules, titles like the one Mr. Stein used Tuesday night -- "Essential Strategic Management; the Quest for Competitive Advantage" -- must stay in the library and be borrowed for no more than three hours at a time. He called it a modest inconvenience given the alternative: buying the book, which on campus would cost $170 new and $127.50 used.
At many colleges, individual professors set aside books and other course materials as a hedge against textbook costs that for some students can be $1,000 or even more a year, campus administrators say. But having a university-wide program to purchase books for that purpose is less common, said Steven Bell, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
It is yet another of the strategies to cut book costs being tried on public and private campuses, from textbook rental programs and use of e-books and electronic readers, to creating reading lists using all or portions of books obtained from publishers of open source materials.
One public system, the State University of New York, has invested thousands of dollars in seed money to encourage faculty creation of books that would be free to use in digital format and nominally expensive to acquire in print, perhaps $10 or $20, said Carey Hatch, associate provost with the SUNY headquarters.
"We all believe we need to lower the cost of higher education, but for many of us, it's difficult to lower the cost of tuition because we are state entities. We already are pretty much to the bone," he said. "But we can have impact in the area of books by creating textbooks that are significantly lower cost."
Robert Morris' book reserve program debuted in the fall. Initially, $10,500 was spent to acquire 170 new and used textbooks, and another $6,500 boosted the collection for spring semester to 200 books used in 70 general education courses and several upper-division courses, administrators said. Anywhere from two to 10 copies of books are maintained, depending on need.
In the fall, 850 of the university's 4,100 undergraduates used the program, and they saved on average $250 to $300, said John Michalenko, vice president for student life. Hundreds more reserve books were checked out in the early weeks of this semester.
Some students use them if books ordered online do not arrive on time, said Jacqueline Klentzin, a professor and the library's interim head of public services. "It's great for faculty because they have had to deal with the first couple weeks where students don't have the book. It delays their teaching," she said.
The program was spawned by a faculty and staff committee studying why students leave campus and by students in an honors Business and Professional Communications course who explored textbook costs as a class project.
They considered solutions including campuswide conversion to e-books deliverable on iPads and a book bartering system, but settled instead on a book reserve like ones in use at the University of Texas at San Antonio and at Patrick Henry College, small non-denominational Christian college in Purcellville, Va.
At Patrick Henry, two-thirds of the school's nearly 500 students have used one or more of the 800 titles purchased by the school. Some already own the book but prefer the reserve copy to lugging a heavy volume around campus, while others would have difficulty paying bookstore prices, said Vickie Thornhill, associate director of the college library.
"I know the kids who are struggling and I know the difference $500 a semester can make," she said. "This program makes a difference."
Mr. Bell from the libraries association says there is a potential downside in such programs to the extent that colleges might buy the books at high prices at the expense of other cost-cutting initiatives. Others pointed to costs required to replace books in reserve as they become outdated.
At Robert Morris, where tuition and fees total $24,040 a year, Mr. Michalenko said his school was already working on strategies to cut book costs.
Michelle Carrell, 20, a graphic design major from Aliquippa, said the program has cut her per-semester book costs from about $500 to $100.
The fact her workstudy job is in the library just footsteps from the books is an added bonus. Pointing to the back room behind her where the books are kept, she said, "If I ever need to look up anything, I can just walk behind the wall here."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or (412) 263-1977.