(Note: The musings on the design failure below are purely academic, though I honestly am not sure when the book is actually due. At the time this post went to press, the U of M had not responded to this writer’s inquiries for said information.)

The setting:
The University of Minnesota’s own bookstore rents textbooks to students for the semester for much less money than purchasing them new (and slightly less than purchasing them used). This formalizes the previous financial arrangement of purchasing a textbook at the beginning of the semester for $$$$ and selling it back at the end of the semester for $$.

The benefits: 
For students, it removes the barrier of having to have significant cash on hand (or use credit cards) and it removes the market risks of not knowing if your textbook would be replaced by a new edition or dropped by a professor/department. For the bookstore, renting the book means they own it and you underline and highlight at your own peril (you risk being forced to purchase the book), thus keeping a cleaner stock of textbooks in circulation.

The problem:
Disproportionate charges for loss of a book. Let’s say you love the book. You can email the store up until the due date and be charged the difference between the price of the book ($$$$) and the rental fee you’ve already paid ($$).  But let’s say the book is stolen or lost or you love the book but forget to email the bookstore by the due date because you’re writing papers and celebrating Chanukah while working full-time? You’ll be paying the full price ($$$$) on top of the rental fee ($$) for a total of ALL THE MONEY ($$$$$$).

I get that the store incurs uncertainty costs in its planning (say stocking textbooks for the next semester) and late fees certainly are motivating factors, but given that the store allows official rental-to-purchase shifts up until the due date, their fee structure of charging students nearly 150% of retail price seems pretty punitive.

Absence of vital information on receipt. The high financial costs of missing the due date increase its importance. Students must present the receipt along with the book for return, but nowhere on the receipt or copy of signed contract does it give the due date, although each of these documents includes the date and time the rental began, the rental term (i.e. Fall 2014 semester), the book information, and student name.

Conflicting information. A flyer stapled to the receipt has the due date (Saturday) on its back.  Additionally, this is also written on a sticker on the back cover of the book, a location likely to be covered to protect the rented book. An email reminder sent Wednesday, however, lists Friday as the last day to return books, no exceptions, and with that information only in the body of the email rather than subject line.

Redundant requirements. Students are required to present receipt for the rental to be accepted. Yet all of this information is digitized for automatic charges if a student fails to return a book.

Negative branding consequences. There’s a long-term use of a database to manage students in a large university system across many different arenas and a long-standing protocol for official university communication to be distributed exclusively through email. Coupled with heavy and arbitrary fees for failure to return a book and decades-long mutterings about the strangely high costs for textbooks (and the very controlled supply-demand workings of these), the university bookstore’s communication and design failure looks at best negligent and at worst purposeful and predatory.

The solutions:
Use established communication systems. Email students their receipts immediately. If a barcode is needed to scan the book for return, put that on a sticker in the book, rather than on a loose receipt. Email students two reminders: shortly before classes end (in case they will no longer be on campus during finals week), the day before books are due.

Use analog methods effectively. Both libraries and schools have dealt with book rentals for decades. Prior to computerization, both generally included a clear record of date of rental/due date on the inside. Schools in particular encouraged students to cover borrowed books to protect them; information was placed on the first interior page where it would not be covered.

Establish fine structures commensurate with the circumstances. What kinds of financial costs is the bookstore really facing when students fail to either return the book or email to say they’d like to buy it by the last day of the semester?

Default to non-punitive assumptions about student motivations. Since students can choose to change their rental of a book to a purchase up until the due date, rather than requiring push-notification for this, assume that when a student fails to return a book, that indicates they wish to keep it and charge them the difference.

Clarify institutional motivations. Perhaps I’m not recognizing legitimate factors that justify the current fine structure system. Transparency and honesty about motivations can help clear things up and avoid driving students to procrastinatory blog posts when they become alarmed by the conflicting information you feed them. I can think of three main motivations for this structure.
1. U of M Bookstore can haz all ur monnnnnniez! Then congrats, well-done! You have successfully used knowledge of communication, graphic design, and human factors to increase failure (and thus increase fines) rates! I could see there being some underlying factors that quasi-justify this: perhaps the failure is primarily among students who are saving money to go hunt white rhinos? Otherwise. Nope.
2. U of M Bookstore Will Teach You Responsibility, Young Man. In which case, paternalistic much? Or vindictive (back in my day, college textbooks cost TWICE as much and there was only an open-air blood-for-book market down by the river! You’re soft, kid!)
3. Secret Textbook Conspiracy IS TRUE! To gain the privilege of renting textbooks to students, the U of M bookstore had to swear a blood oath on the still pulsing heart of Elvis in the underground lair of the CRC Press that they would not forgo all the financial drama and pain of the closed-market, pre-internet textbook days.

Post tearing up my lovely protective wrapper to confirm date.

Post ripping off my lovely protective wrapper to confirm date. Please note like-new state! If something happens between now and its return, something terrible that a smartly-applied brown paper bag would have prevented, and I get charged, I am going to be cranky.


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