I don't agree that it's a matter of style over substance. The new Macbook is very much a best-in-class for what it is. (A good friend and Mac user of over 30 years says it's the best Apple product he's ever owned.)
The question is more if it's the *right* fit for what a particular student wants/needs.
If you can give up a slight bit of portability/size, you'll actually save a bit of money by going with a Macbook Air. True, the Macbook has zero moving parts... but my Macbook Airs have been incredibly reliable even with a fan. (And, my wife has put her's through the ringer with Flash content... the fan runs a lot! and it's going on its' 5th year I think.)
And, if as Whoopty says, you need more ports and such (think about the why of that though!), a Macbook Pro would be a better choice. Plus, if that recreational time includes gaming, the student will probably be a bit bummed with the Macbook, as it's a minimialist design, not a powerhouse design (CPU or GPU). (It will maybe play games on low settings... my friend says it does OK with Minecraft, for example... but it's probably not going to handle something like Star Wars Battlefront very well if at all.)
Also, a Macbook Pro has plenty of power (heck, it's beating many desktops in performance) if a lot of RAM is needed, or the student wants to run a Windows partition, or other such more heavy-duty things. It's just bigger and heavier... and yea, quite a bit more expensive.