How are we getting our software?

Washington University excels in its peer group of research institutions in advancing knowledge and conveying it to students through a world-class faculty. However, the University lags behind in providing some of the tools we need to work on our assignments, namely required software that is frequently not available to students at affordable prices. In addition to making this software more affordable for purchase as has been done at peer institutions, the University could also improve the visibility of the resources it does provide.

Several majors at Wash. U. require the use of some specialized software: MATLAB for mathematics and engineering students; SPSS, Minitab, or similar software for business and statistics; and a slew of Adobe products spanning classes across the entire university. Additionally, everyone needs Microsoft Office, especially Olin students entering a job market where Excel is frequently a stated requirement for employment.

For budget-conscious students, software packages are expensive even with academic discounts. On JourneyEd.com, a student software store, Adobe Creative Suite 5 packages start around $300 and can cost up to $900 for a premium version. Microsoft Office 2010’s academic price still stands at over $100. Software also has a limited lifespan. For example, Minitab just released a version of its software that overhauls parts of the user interface and data analysis tools.

Universities generally do not purchase books for their students. However, peer institutions like Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Emory do provide all of the technological tools necessary for their students to stay up to date with their classes. CMU makes MATLAB and Mathematica available for free download for various operating systems, along with MS-Office available for a “media fee” to cover the cost of the DVD discs. The fee is on the order of $10. Emory has nearly identical listings. Case Western Reserve University provides the aforementioned programs for free, plus various versions of the latest Adobe Creative Suite for both Mac and PC and a staggering array of other software all at no charge to its students

Wash. U. could also better advertise the resources it does offer for students on a budget. The school provides very limited discounted software via a platform called “OnTheHub.” Microsoft Office products are generally available in the sub-twenty dollar range, and a few products at deep discounts are available. For engineers, MATLAB is free. Students would certainly benefit from the University advertising these offerings.

Wash. U. does, in its defense, provide students access to computer labs with the programs needed to get through a class, but this is inconvenient when compared with owning a copy of the software. Labs are notoriously full, and hours are limited.

The University could shift to site licenses for all students instead of devoting resources to keeping labs open and their computers stocked with programs. Though cheaper than providing site licenses for students, labs are nevertheless expensive to maintain. Computers, printers, electricity and staffing cost the University a decent sum. By cutting back on lab expenses, the school could provide us with a more robust package of deeply discounted or free software and simultaneously provide us with more flexibility to do our work when and where we want.

Wash. U. does a lot for its students in terms of quality of life—much more than most other universities in the world—but it needs to recognize that there are areas in electronic academia where its methods are dated.

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