When students arrive on campus for the first time with visions of red solo cups and shiny new student loan cheques dancing in their heads, few give much thought to the idea of when, where, and even if they should work as they pursue their post-secondary education. I have seen many different employment strategies work best for people depending on their specific situation. It often comes down balancing the added stress and time commitment of a part-time job, with a social life and academic studies.
The Classic Summer Job
My personal solution was sort of a traditionalist model. I had a great summer job when I went through university and I earned 12-17K every year. For a couple of those years I also worked the odd weekend as well at the same job with the Canada Border Services Agency. When I combined this with my scholarship income, and some RESP help from my parents, I was able to get through five years of post-secondary studies practically debt-free (I had a small balance on my line of credit on graduation day that was paid back in my first couple months out of school). The idea of using a summer job to pay for 8 months of school was likely the way your parents’ generation got through school, but it just isn’t viable in a lot of cases anymore. With unemployment rates putting downward pressure on certain job markets, and the cost of post-secondary education escalating so rapidly, many students have taken to work 60-80 hour weeks during the summer at 2+ jobs in order to fund their education. If they are going to school away from home this often still isn’t enough. If you can swing a great summer job like this (preferably one in your career field) then it really makes your life a lot easier during the school year. I know I was able to take a full course load without too much of a sweat simply because your time management becomes much easier when you don’t have to budget 20+ working hours and getting to and from work etc.
If you have to work during the school year this begins to present some trade-offs to people. The most obvious sacrifice is the great social life that can come with being a student. If you’re a young person this might be the greatest opportunity you’ll have to get out there, meet people, and try new things (this doesn’t HAVE to mean going to a bar by the way). I’m not a huge fan of that sacrifice. A really tough decision for most students is to cut down on their course load as they go through school in order to work more side jobs and lessen their reliance on debt (especially if they are not eligible for student loans). This isn’t ideal either since it delays your entry into a presumably higher-paying career path, in order to work a minimum wage “student job”. A final consequence of people trying to hold down jobs during the school year is that they are so busy they don’t have time to apply for scholarships, grants and bursaries. One of our favourite themes here on My University Money is how much free money is out there for the taking if you keep your head up and ears open.
Student Loan Debt Isn’t THAT Bad
While student loan debt may seem like a major drag, it is actually a great deal if you use the money properly and work towards a career field that will pay you once you get out of post-secondary studies (not to mention the stand alone benefits of getting a student loan). I am always stupefied by the news articles that detail how someone went 40K in debt (or 200K if it is an American article) in order to get a degree in art history or psychology. If this is the case for you, I simply don’t recommend that whole path of education. If art history interests you, then read a book on it instead of paying 40K for the information! On the other hand, if student loans allow you to focus more fully on your studies, and achieve top marks, along with a great resume of various activities and experiences to point to, in a field that is in-demand, then this is a great use of the money. In that situation, delaying your entry into the professional workforce in order to work a minimum wage side gig is a bad trade-off. You’re probably much better served to pursue summer jobs that can add to your resume and help you get hired right away. Debt is only a tool, and a very good one if used properly.
Ultimately Only You Can Decide What Is Right For You
I think that working part-time while you go to school is a good idea if you are living at home while going to school, don’t have a lot of responsibility, and aren’t really sure what you want to do. If you find yourself in these circumstances and are just basically going to post-secondary for the experience of it then I don’t recommend going into debt or rushing into anything. If you are pursuing a career and you know what you want to get out of school, I think there should be higher priorities than a part-time job during the school year for most situations. Student loan debt actually has some definite advantages, and isn’t the end of the world despite what your student union was shouting at you last time they marched in the streets (*looks at watch* so… 3 hours ago give or take). Getting valuable volunteer or intern experience will likely leave you further ahead in the long run than those nights of bartending or waitressing will anyway, plus, I probably don’t have to tell many of you this, but you’re only 18 once! I think the method I used to get through my studies has a lot of merits if you can swing a great summer job (which you should be able to if you read our article on it), but it isn’t for everyone. Just consider what the end results of your choices will be and decide if the sacrifices are worth it if you are considering part-time work during the school year.