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Why you’re going to have to work while attending university

Gail Johnson
A barista makes drinks inside a newly designed Starbucks coffee shop in Fountain Valley, California in this August 22, 2013, file photo. The Juan Valdez cafe chain, owned by farmers and beloved by Colombians, expects the imminent arrival of Starbucks Corp to help it boost surprisingly low consumption of the beverage in a nation that grows much of the world's tastiest arabica. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)

When Alex Prasad heads back to university this fall, she won’t just be steeling herself for a full-time course load in her third year of humanities. She’ll also be working anywhere from 21 to 35 hours a week as a medical-office assistant.

“When I’m on campus, I usually like to power through and finish the majority of my work while I’m still there; that way when I come home after a long day I can take an hour to read a book or watch TV or go to the gym and relax before diving back into my homework,” the Vancouver resident says. “When I’m working, I fully concentrate on that, but as soon as my shift is over, I try to not think about it at all.

“It’s tough trying to juggle both,” adds Prasad, who recently moved out on her own and doesn’t have any student loans. “Luckily, I have a pretty great boss who understands my need for flexibility and that school is my first priority.”

Prasad is part of the 73 per cent of Canadian students who will need to work throughout the upcoming school year to cover their university or college expenses.

According to a new CIBC poll, students who are working this summer will spend, on average, 31 per cent of their earnings on tuition, 25 per cent on living costs, and 20 per cent on entertainment and personal expenses. Nineteen per cent will save money for the future.

It’s no wonder so many people need to pull double-duty with tuition fees being what they are. In 2013 and 2014, the average cost of a year’s tuition at a Canadian university was $5,772, according to Statistics Canada.

Students in Quebec have access to the most affordable tuition: full-time Canadian students in an arts and humanities program there pay $2,224 per year at institutions across the board, according to Statistics Canada. The next most affordable programs can be found at St. John’s’ Memorial University of Newfoundland ($2,550), Edmonton’s MacEwan University ($3,120), and Winnipeg’s Université de Saint-Boniface ($3,310).

Ancaster, Ontario’s Redeemer University College is the country’s most expensive centre of higher learning, with the same program costing $14,720 per year. That’s followed by King’s University College in London (starting at $9,920) and Sackville, New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University ($7,245).

Those expenses are likely to rise: The average tuition cost 3.3 per cent more for the 2013/2014 school year than the previous year, according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC).

There are compulsory fees, such as those for student services and recreation, to consider. And don't forget the cost of textbooks. The FCAC says students in many undergraduate programs can expect to pay between $800 and $1,000 per year.

Cost of living expenses vary widely.

Here’s a sample breakdown from the University of Manitoba for a single student living at a ‘very modest” level for one calendar year:

  • Books and supplies $1,000 to $5,000

  • Accommodation $4,800 to $12,000

  • Food $2,700

  • Health and dental insurance $270

  • Clothing $600

  • Transportation (bus pass for 1 year) $750

  • Entertainment $750

  • Miscellaneous : $750

The University of Toronto, meanwhile, estimates the following costs:[

  • Books and Supplies: $1,000

  • Accommodation $7,300 to $14,000

  • Food $3,600 minimum

  • University health insurance plan $684

  • Clothing $1,200 to $2,000

  • Transportation (bus pass) $1,272

  • Miscellaneous $1,200 to $2,400

Those numbers may seem sobering, but remember, they don't even include travel costs home to see family and friends or entertainment costs.

If you have to work to make ends meet, consider jobs that are worth your while. Prasad, for instance, earns close to $20 an hour at the medical-imaging facility where she works. Taking on a minimum-wage position may not make sense, especially if your marks suffer from so much time away from studying.

What can make a retail job worthwhile is the staff discount: you might get a decent enough discount that paying for your laptop or monthly groceries becomes that much easier. Some students are attracted to Starbucks for the free pound of coffee employees get every week.

Jobs that come with tips, such as bartending or waiting on tables, are obvious options. There are jobs that offer other perks worth considering, though: landing a position as a library monitor, for example, would allow some time to study while at work; teaching fitness or working at a gym would enable you to get in much-needed workouts for free.

Online tools like the Investor Education fund’s University Cost Calculator can help determine exactly how much you money you need to have to get you through the school year.

To help keep money matters in check throughout the school year, CIBC suggests students make a budget and stick to it and track spending.