Back to School: College in the Computer Age

The coffee joints are surprisingly quiet. The kids you see in stores and fast food places are suddenly, on average, much younger. And all of those new university T-shirts and sweatshirts, ubiquitous just a month ago, have now disappeared.

It's off-to-college time.

After all of my years as a scout leader and Little League coach, I've gotten pretty familiar with this leave-taking process. The first of my Eagle Scout and baseball charges, some of whom I'd known since they were 4 years old, took off for college a couple years ago. I saw how their parents dealt with their newly empty nests and had the pleasure of seeing these boys and girls return as young men and women at Christmas break. But this year it is our turn, and no amount of watching others go through the process fully prepares you for that moment when you climb into the car or cab and say goodbye to your child for what will be many months of long distance worry.

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In our case, the departing child is our oldest, Tad, whom regular readers of this column will know quite well as he's been appending the "Tad's Tab" feature to this column since he was 15 years old. He's 18 now and, as I write this, my wife and I are recovering from the jet lag of dropping him off at Oxford University earlier this week. He's already settled into his house, found his "pub" group -- as well as a bassist to jam with -- and joined a rugby team.

In the meantime, what I've found interesting is the process of equipping your child to go to college in the information age. Back when you're entirely focused upon SAT scores, college apps and just generally keeping your surly teenager alive and out of jail until he or she graduates from high school, you hear parents of older kids talking about running around getting their children ready for college, but the details never quite sink in until you are in the thick of it.

From a distance, "wiring" your kid for college may seem like a supercharged version of the previous 12 years of back-to-school shopping -- pencils, paper, new clothes -- and it is. You still are going to spend a few days (at home and in the neighborhood around the school) running around in a frenzy buying bed linens, furniture, desk lamps, clothes, bus tokens, posters, meal tickets, etc. And (which you already know if you went to college yourself) you'll be shelling out a ton of dough for overpriced textbooks.

Meanwhile, if your kid is going to a big school or commuting, you'll also likely be buying a car or at least a bicycle. (Tad, who'll be taking the bus from his hostel to the "dreaming spires" of Oxford, is likely to be the only California skateboarder racing to class there, as well.)

If you've spent any time around college kids, you probably know most of this already. Having taught juniors and seniors at Santa Clara University for a few years, I also can tell you from experience that rolls of quarters and laundry soap should also be on your list: College kids smell by the time finals roll around.

It's in the area of technology for your new college student where the biggest changes have occurred. Fifty years ago, a manual typewriter and a slide rule were all you needed and represented a tiny fraction of one's expenses for college. Twenty years ago, the cost of technology -- as a percentage of total educational fees -- probably peaked with the desktop computer and programmable calculator, clock radio and stereo/TV.

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