Apple Just Incentivized Every College Kid To Get An iPad. As For High Schoolers…

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As I watched Apple’s iBooks event in New York City last week, my mind began to race about the ramifications of such announcements. Everyone had a pretty good idea for weeks (or months if you read the Steve Jobs biography) that textbooks would be a focal point for Apple, but there wasn’t much thought given to what this would mean. During the event itself, I just kept thinking, “wow, Apple just incentivized every college student to get an iPad”.

Except, they didn’t. Not yet.

The weird thing about Apple’s event was that it mainly focused on high school education. Yes, the iTunes U update is fantastic, but for now, the textbook side of the equation is about high schools. And again, that’s weird because the iPad plan seems better suited for college students. In fact, it seems almost perfectly suited for college students.

In kicking off the event, Apple SVP Phil Schiller noted that high school students in the U.S. that enter as freshman only have a 70 percent chance of graduating these days. In urban areas, it’s more like 60 percent, he said. Schiller was setting up Apple’s iBooks textbooks as a possible way to  improve this.

The problem is that the cheapest iPad is still $500. What high school student is going to buy that? Basically none — their parents will have to. And that’s fine for some students, but not all. Not even a high percent, I’d imagine. In the inner-cities — again, where education is even more of an issue — it’s probably even less likely of a purchase.

As Josh Topolsky points out, Apple does work with school districts to lease iPads on a four-year schedule, presumably at a nice discount. But that means the school owns the iPads and temporarily gives them out to students. That goes against Apple’s stated mission that students should now buy (or get via redemption code) all iBooks textbooks and keep them forever, keeping their notes, highlights, etc.

The school leasing also probably means the iPads are staying at the schools. How does that help for homework? Or are the schools allowing students to take the iPads home, risking losing them or damaging them? That doesn’t seem like a tenable idea for many budget-minded schools.

Schiller also told The Verge that he felt the numbers worked out favorably if the school districts bought students iPads instead of old-school textbooks and computers for the classroom. Maybe. But computers are a purchase the high schools do in multi-year cycles and students share them. For this new iPad textbook system to fully reach its maximum potential, schools would have to buy one iPad for each student that comes through the school. And again, what if they get lost, or stolen, or break?

My point is that Apple’s textbook plan for iBooks is a wonderful, obvious, and much needed evolution of the current system. But it’s more naturally suited for college students. At least right now.

One could easily imagine students buying $499 iPads and $15 textbooks instead of paying several hundred dollars a year for just the old-school textbooks alone. (Though it wasn’t entirely clear if college-level textbooks would have the same $15 ceiling that high school ones do — again, the focus last week was on high school.)

Yes, college students can (and often do) sell back books once they’re done with them. But having been a college student myself, I feel safe saying the entire experience is pretty crappy. I’d much much much rather have an iPad with all my textbooks on it — that I get for a reasonable price, and keep forever, along with all my notes.

Even better, you could imagine the universities themselves wrapping the cost of an iPad into tuition. Many schools started doing this with laptops years ago. Because college is so expensive — and again, college textbooks are so ridiculously expensive — this works. At the very least, it works a lot better than it currently does for high school students.

Even if when the next iPad is announced, the current model drops in price to something like $400 — or even $300 — that’s still an expensive sell to high school students and/or their parents and/or their schools. If every kid in the world already had an iPad, this would be the most brilliant program ever. Unfortunately, Apple needs to sell at least a few billion more iPads to get to that point.

I’m worried we may have a chicken and egg problem here. Apple is giving students a huge incentive to use iPads, but it’s still prohibitive for many of those students to get one. And if many can’t get one, does the iBooks program take off like it should?

If it does take off, I bet it does in colleges first. And that’s why it’s weird that Apple is starting off by focusing on high school.

The education system in this country (and I’m sure you could certainly argue the same is true in most parts of the world) absolutely needs fixing, and it’s great that Apple is working on the problem. I’m just not sure I see how it’s anything but an extremely slow process with iBooks, if it works at all.

I have no doubt that in the not-too-distant future, students walk around with tablet computers carrying all of their textbooks and other education needs. But we need to get the tablets in their hands to get to that future.