In this economy, universities are looking for innovative ways to cut costs for students.

One New Hampshire institution may have discovered a novel approach, which includes partnering with bookstores to trim the costs associated with expensive textbooks. Steve Kolowich of Inside Higher Ed offers the details.

When it comes to textbook costs, publishers are often seen as owning all the levers. But Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recently decided to take a novel approach to reducing textbook costs for its students by reworking its contracts not with the companies that sell books, but rather those that control the bookstores.

The crucial step in this effort for SNHU, which operates both a traditional undergraduate campus and a lucrative array of online programs, was forgoing the commission it took in past years from the company that ran its physical and online bookstores, Follett Higher Education.

The university had been earning an 11 percent commission (and 12 percent of every sale once revenues exceeded $4 million), according to an internal analysis provided to Inside Higher Ed. In the 2011-12 academic year, the university made $500,000 from this commission.

As large vendors like Follett have taken over bookstores on many campuses, it has become common for universities to accept such commissions in exchange for giving the vendors the opportunity to cash in on the local demand for textbooks. And while other universities have struck deals with publishers for discounts on behalf of their students, attacking the cost issue by taking a pass on that kickback seems to be a rare move.

“It’s not common to waive it completely, that would be fair to say,” says Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores.

Then again, SNHU is in the rare position of having an ample annual budget surplus that gives the institution room for such goodwill gestures. The financial success of the university’s online arm is well-documented, and it is largely to credit for SNHU’s having pulled in between $12 and $14 million more than it spent in each of the last few years, according to Paul LeBlanc, the president.

SNHU recently notified Follett that it would be ending its current bookstore contract and soliciting new suitors. The idea was to forgo the university’s customary percentage on the condition that the bookstore vendor would set the prices for SNHU students accordingly so that students, not the vendor, would benefit from the university’s largesse, says Amelia Manning, the associate vice president of student advising at SNHU, who led the negotiations.

The request for proposals garnered three viable offers. The university’s analysis, and its decision, can be viewed in the accompanying graphic. (SNHU requested that Inside Higher Ed withhold the names of the suitors because negotiations are not yet finalized.)