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.

The good news is that Moore's Law has driven tech hardware costs way down in the years since -- despite the fact that the hardware itself is hundreds of times more powerful. The bad news is that Metcalfe's Law of networks has guaranteed that the software and service costs of this technology have become ever more expensive as it consumes an ever greater fraction of our daily lives.

Let's take Tad for example, as he, moving 12,000 miles away to a different country, represents a fairly extreme case.

First, there was the matter of a computer. Throughout high school, he mostly did his class work -- and everything else, from IM'ing to music downloads to his Facebook page -- on a big, powerful Alienware gamer machine. There was no way that energy-sucking behemoth was going to England -- it's now been inherited by Tad's little brother.

So, we needed a laptop. But that choice couldn't be made in isolation, as Tad also needed a new cell phone -- or at least a new SIM card for international calls. Then there was the matter of a music player: His Apple iPod Touch having been ruined in the wash, he'd borrowed a buddy's old iPod, but now had to return it.

In the end, despite our being a Windows family, and though the new Dell and HP machines were much cheaper, Tad opted for one of the new Apple MacBooks with a large screen but comparatively small memory (though still huge by even last year's standards). At the same time, he (well, we) bought an iPhone 3G. His reasoning was pretty sound: He'd have perfect compatibility between the two devices and he could use his iPhone as his MP3 player.

I've never been a great iPhone fan, mostly because of its lack of a keyboard, but Tad found its virtual keyboard adequate for texting. And there was the added advantage of all of those great iPhone apps, including currency exchange rates, GPS and maps for getting around Oxfordshire and London, a day-timer and homework scheduler, etc. He could also use his iPhone as an alarm clock and, eventually, when dropped into a speaker set-up, as a stereo. And, if Tad had been going to an American college, he would have even gotten a free iPod Nano thrown in with the deal.

In other words, thanks to a couple decades of technological innovation, what would have been about $5,000 in today's dollars for a crate full of electronic hardware and books, had now been reduced to two small devices, one the size of a pad of paper, the other a deck of cards -- and all for half that price. God bless Silicon Valley.

However, that was just the beginning. If the upfront costs proved to be a bargain, I fear that the monthly fees are going to force me to take on more paying jobs. For example, take the iPhone: Having bought the device here in Apple's backyard, it basically can't be used over in Old Blighty as a regular phone … at least without hacking it and voiding the warranty. I won't say publicly what Tad has decided to do, but let's just say that I'm constantly astonished how major U.S. corporations teach de facto criminality to our young people.

In the meantime, my wife gave him my old cellphone, with an updated call/text plan, from my time working in the U.K. a couple years ago. Either way, we set up Tad on both phones for prepaid unlimited phone and texting for the next decade. Even better, we can add to the prepayment directly from California via the Web or ATM.

Of course, there's always Skype -- which, now that old family friend Marc Andreessen has bought it, may actually become the future of telephony it was meant to be.

As for the Internet, the wireless broadband in his house is free, but the fees are no doubt buried in his housing costs. And, of course, every holiday and birthday -- and no doubt in-between -- he's going to be asking for iTunes gift cards. Of course, he's been doing that for a few years already -- and it's a heckuva lot cheaper to buy individual songs online than entire CDs.

E-mail: What kid uses e-mail anymore? But if he wants to hear from his anachronistic old parents, he's got a Gmail account, which is free. We also got him a British bank account, to which we can wire money directly. We can also send money to the Oxford bus company, letting him simply use a smart card rather than lugging around all of that incomprehensible British coinage. And, perhaps most important of all, we can even add to his debit card for the local Sainsbury grocery store -- thus sparing him endless less-than-three-squares of top ramen over the next few years.

In the end, will this combination of hardware, software and servers in our brave new digital world of education prove more or less expensive than a few years ago? Hard to tell yet, but my gut suggests that it will all turn out about the same. But that said, it is also important to note that Tad will enjoy infinitely more access to information and the ability connect to others -- including his parents -- than I did 30 years ago going to college just a few miles from home. As to whether that last is a welcome improvement, you'll have to ask Tad.

This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.