Every year, college freshmen, sophomores and juniors have a difficult choice to make - whether to stay in "school mode" and take classes during summer sessions or earn money through a summer job. There's no right answer for every student, but there are compelling arguments for each option that students should consider.
Some students have little or no choice regarding the decision to take classes during summer sessions. Students who had difficulties during the regular term may find they need to take summer classes to maintain a GPA high enough to maintain their place at their chosen school or graduate with their class. Other students, most notably scholarship athletes, may well be expected to stay on campus through the summer and continue to train, and can use the summer school sessions to get ahead on their coursework.
Summer school can offer a lot of advantages. While summer school often requires a student to pay out of pocket (many grants and scholarships don't cover the additional summer courses), it can actually be cheaper to go to summer school.
Many schools will accept transfer credits and students at expensive private or out-of-state schools may find it considerably cheaper to study at a local college during the summer (particular if mom and dad are willing to supply room and board for free). There are often limits on the number of transfer credits that a school will accept, but summer school can shave off a year of very expensive tuition and room and board.
Summer school can also be a way to fulfill graduation requirements with a little less pain. Although popular courses are not often offered during the summer sessions, students can often avoid difficult or unpleasant prerequisites by filling them through summer sessions at other schools. Along similar lines, classes taken during the summer can free up the fall and spring schedules, letting a student be more active in student government, internships or other worthwhile pursuits outside of the classroom.
Last and by no means least, at least as of the summer of 2012, a summer job may be not be guaranteed just because a student wants one. Unemployment in the 18-24 age group is considerably higher than the overall unemployment rate, and many employers are exploiting the tough job market by offering lower pay or no pay at all (for "internships").
The biggest advantage to a summer job is pretty straightforward - earning money. For many students, that's not even an option; their financial aid package presumes summer earnings and/or their financial situation means that going back to school in the fall is predicated on summer earnings.
Necessity isn't the only reason to pursue summer employment. Summer jobs or internships can provide invaluable experience, connections and resume buffing - all of which can make the summer worker stand out as a better candidate for full-time employment after graduation. Not only can a successful internship make a candidate stand out, but many firms that offer internships actively look to fill new permanent positions with former interns.
Last and not least, albeit very hard to quantify, is the benefit that a job offers in terms of recharging the mental batteries. Demanding academic programs can take a toll on the student and year-round schooling may not be mentally or emotionally sustainable. Jobs, then, offer a break from the routine and perhaps a chance to come back mentally refreshed.
How About Both … or Neither?
While "summer school versus summer job" is often presented as an either/or, there's no reason that the two cannot be combined. Many community or commuter colleges offer evening classes during summer sessions, and while combining the two may undermine the notion of a "summer vacation," they can be combined so that a vacation is possible.
It's worth noting that some students may not have to do either. While it is becoming the norm for college students to work, not all have to and some students may have the luxury of having no particular responsibility to do anything during the summer. For those who have that luxury, I suppose it's a fair option to kick back and spend the summer however you wish, but those students may find that they pay a price later when interviewing for jobs and facing questions about how and why they spent their summers as they did.
The Bottom Line
Just as there's no "one size fits all" answer about how to select a school or major, there's likewise no definitive answer about how best to spend the summers between school terms. Summer school has a lot to offer in terms of saving money over the long-term and/or easing the academic burden, but a summer job can offer always-useful money and invaluable work experience. While some may find that they can handle doubling up and getting the best of both, it's a decision that needs to be evaluated every summer and in consultation with parents, academic advisors, and potential employers.