Is Working in the Summer As a College Student Worth It?

College students work hard all academic year, writing papers, studying, taking tests.  The old adage used to be that then they should work hard during the summer earning money to help pay for college.

Thirty years ago, working hard during the summer a student could make enough to pay a large portion of his tuition for the next year.

Yet, is that even possible now?

College is now so expensive and the minimum wage so low, one has to wonder if it makes sense to stop attending college even just for the summer session.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep taking classes to finish the college degree as quickly as possible?

Taking a Look at the Numbers

Let’s look at a hypothetical student, Jessica, who attends a state college.  Her tuition is $6,474 per semester, or $12,948 an academic year.

According to FinAid, “On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year.”  So, even without other variables considered, Jessica can expect to pay $12,948 her freshman year, $13,983 her sophomore year, $15,102 her junior year, and $16,310 her senior year.  She will pay a grand total of $58,343 in tuition and fees alone.

Summer classes will cost Jessica $3,200 for 6 to 9 credits.  She can go for three summers and earn enough credits for one academic year.  The first summer is $3,200, the second summer is $3,456, and the third summer is $3,732.  All three summers together cost $10,388.  She can graduate in 3 years, meaning she can skip her senior year, which would have cost $16,310.  She has saved herself $5,922 in tuition.

If Jessica works three summers instead and makes minimum wage ($7.25) and works 40 hours a week for 12 weeks, she’ll earn $3,480.  Let’s say she has 20% taken out of her paycheck for taxes, union dues, and other fees.  She is now taking home $2,784 for one summer.  That is $8,352 she’ll earn over three summers.

It looks like taking the summer off to work rather than go to school is worthwhile.  After all, she makes $8,352 in three summers, and she only saves $5,922 in tuition overall by going to school in the summers.  Working helps her come out $2,430 ahead.

The Real Advantage of Taking Courses in the Summer

There’s just one problem with this equation.  By attending in the summers, she finishes college in three years, not four.  That means she can start working at a full-time job with benefits one year earlier.  Let’s say she snags a low entry level job at $35,000 per year.  Even after taxes are deducted, she is much further ahead financially than she would be attending college for four years.  She can start paying back her student loans a year earlier, she can start contributing to her retirement a year earlier, and she can increase her salary with raises and bonuses a year earlier.

While conventional wisdom may say it’s best to work during the summer to make money for college, that old rule no longer applies thanks to inflation.  Instead, working hard for three years to get out of college as quickly as possible seems to be the smartest move.

What do you think?  Work during the summers or go to school and finish more quickly?