I mentioned the other day, in talking about online high schools and Idaho’s plan for online courses, that my alma mater ran a laptop program while I was there. A fellow alum suggested that I write about that, so why not?
They started the mandatory program in 1999 – every freshman had to have a laptop, and the school offered one at fairly steep discount (especially considering the software on it; these days it includes Maple, Photoshop, a CAD program, and a few other mid-to-high-cost items). What drove the idea is not something I’m going to get into; there are probably as many motivations as there were people pushing for the initiative, and as many counter-arguments as there were people pushing back. Either way, it happened, and so what the faculty did with it is more important at this point.
Adoption in the freshman courses, especially the more technically oriented ones, was fairly good. The physics program switched over its MBL design to the laptops rather than the existing (frankly ancient) desktops. Math recitations were computer-oriented before this even started, so the change was fairly easy. I can’t speak to the engineering courses personally, never having taken them, but I heard that many of the intro courses used the laptops well. Humanities and social science courses were slower to adapt. I assume they faced little pressure to do so. It was an engineering school, after all.
Where the program suffered was in the upperclass years. Computer usage in sophomore-level classes was scattered. Professors in Junior- and Senior-level courses ended up saying things like “Oh that’s right, you all have laptops now.” Graduate courses? Forget it. Building technology into the curriculum of the institute as a whole seems not to have been a major goal; if it was, it’s one that was never achieved or even approached while I was there.
In terms of outside reputation, the laptop program was effective. Newspaper articles were written, the school showed up on “most-wired” lists, and the school’s PR umbrella generally expanded. Student responses to opinion surveys of the system were generally favorable. In terms of educational effectiveness, there seems to be little evidence either way. I’m fairly sure there was no consideration at the institutional level of doing any educational effectiveness studies on this matter. I was involved with the physics education research group and I hope that we would have heard about something like that if it happened.
Summary: In terms of providing a low-cost and fairly decent laptop, replacing some of the older computer labs, and getting the school some press, I have to say that the program seems to have worked very well. In terms of educational impact, I’m not sure there was any.
For those interested in how sausage is made (or just finding out the name of the school):
Middlebury College’s president got some press a while ago for capping the increase in tuition. Specifically, any tuition increases were capped at 1% over the Consumer Price Index, the standard measure of inflation in the US.
I’m not sure if whomever proposed this doesn’t understand exponential growth, or if Middlebury’s president didn’t understand it, or if he thinks that we don’t understand it, but I do, and let me explain it to you. Most of my data comes from Middlebury’s website, or comes directly or indirectly from the census bureau.
Middlebury’s total cost in 2010 was $50,400. This is a “comprehensive fee” that includes tuition, room, board, fees, and so forth. I’m going to assume that they won’t sneakily put massive increases into things other than tuition.
The median household income in the US in 2010 was $49,445.
The average rate of inflation in the US is 3.16%, averaging since 1958. Median household income grew at 0.04% over inflation since 1989. Naturally, these things fluctuate a lot as the market goes up and down, but those are the averages.
We can use this average to estimate the future tuition at Middlebury, and the future median income in the US. Here’s a graph.
If Middlebury’s tuition increases at their capped amount, the cost of going to school there will pass $100,000 per year in about 2027-28. This would be fine if we were all making $150,000 per year, but as you can see, we’re not.
More instructive, perhaps, is the gap between median income and tuition:
You can see that by 2040, tuition at Middlebury will cost about 35% more than the median household in the US makes per year.
Sadly I don’t have good data for the amount of financial aid available and how that changes by year, but unless it grows at more than 1% over the inflation rate, it’s not going to help.
It is a truism in science that exponential growth can’t continue forever. Eventually the graph turns either cyclic or logistic, and the growth stops. Inflation is a special case; it can keep going forever because we can just revalue the currency to take some zeroes off the end of the bills, as Mexico did with the “new peso” in 1993. When something’s cost regularly increases at more than the rate of inflation, it will eventually need to stop because no one will be able to pay for it.
Exponential growth is a real killer. Middlebury’s plan is better than the average college’s increase. The average for four-year schools is about twice the inflation rate, which would lead to a massive disparity of 160% by 2040. However, it still doesn’t genuinely make the school more affordable.
The only way to make your school more affordable is to have your tuition increase at less than the rate of inflation. Anything more is still exponential growth.