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Financial planning tips

September 06, 2012

How to pay for school — while you’re in school

Higher costs and fewer summer jobs mean “working your way through college” is a reality for more students than ever. Here’s how it can work for you.

“Back in the day,” your parents and grandparents could get out of school in May, work four months in a welcoming economy and then use their earnings to bankroll the next eight months of their studies.

This is simply no longer a reality for most students. A recent Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada shows summer employment hovering around 70% for the third year running, up only slightly from where it stood at the depths of the recession. When you combine this with post-secondary cost increases that are rapidly outpacing general inflation, most students today have to find other ways to supplement their income while in school.

Finding a part-time job

The most obvious way to ease the financial stress of higher education is to find a part-time job. While there are certainly student jobs available off-campus, working on-campus is a good choice if you want to balance the demands of a job with excelling in your studies. On-campus businesses are used to working with students, and so they typically offer superior flexibility and more freedom to design your own schedule. As well, you can often save time and money by working on-campus thanks to cutting commutes out of your day. Another bonus: Campus jobs are often interrelated and there is ample opportunity for variety and change once you start making connections.

Here are some of the more popular options for on-campus jobs:

  • Tutor
  • Intramural referee
  • Residence advisor
  • Special events staff
  • Student union or council (paid staff)
  • Administration assistants
  • Campus bookstore
  • Food services
  • Teaching assistant
  • Library assistant
  • Technical assistance (audio/visual)
  • Lab assistant
  • Campus gym (personal trainer or front desk)
  • Mail centre and/or copy centre
  • Security
  • Lifeguard
  • Daycare centre
  • Tour guide

Applying for a bursary or grant

There is another, often less popular revenue-earning opportunity, that’s far easier on the time management scale: applying for scholarships, bursaries and grants. Every year thousands of dollars in free money fails to get handed out because no qualified candidates applied. This is mainly because students are overburdened with part-time work (ironically enough), they’re adjusting to a post-secondary course load, and/or dealing with the growing independence of being a young adult.

In my experience, most students simply believe that there must be someone out there more qualified than they are and they don’t want to invest their time if there is little chance of it paying off. In reality, the more difficult the application process is for an award, the lower the chances are of very many people applying for it. Note, too, that if you have student loans of any kind, you may automatically qualify for a ton of scholarships, bursaries and grants based on financial need, so pay particular attention to those. Check in regularly with your financial aid and awards office, as awards are granted throughout the school year.

Balancing work and school

If you are trying to decide whether to get a part-time job while in school, I believe a key consideration must be balance and time management. Most Canadian universities will recommend spending two hours of personal study time for every one hour of class time for optimal results. Keeping this sort of commitment can be extremely difficult if you’re bogged down at work. A recent Statistics Canada report, Employment Patterns of Postsecondary Students, showed a fairly widespread consensus that students can pursue part-time work too aggressively, with a measurably negative impact on their grades as a consequence.

It doesn’t make much sense to sacrifice an academic career that will pay dividends far into the future, for the short-term gain provided by an entry-level, part-time job. Like most things in life, finding a balance that works for you is the key to success.

Kyle Prevost is a high school business teacher who blogs about personal finance on Young and Thrifty.

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