For a design student, what is the best option for software to dip toes but do so decently?
There are free options for type design. FontForge but, runs as UNIX on Mac and there is Glyphr on the Web.
Otherwise paid: Fontographer, FontLab, RoboFont, TypeTool, or FontCreator.
Students often find the pen tool to be difficult to understand or use. So, if any of these has advanced since 1986, that would be good… Also, I like the idea of components and changing one adjusts them all across the whole design. Which have that?