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The Globe and Mail

Should your university student work or volunteer this summer?

Fraser Amos is one of the lucky ones. The 19-year-old student managed to find a summer job in Toronto, teaching soccer to seven- to 10-year-olds. He is hoping to earn about $5,000, part of which his parents expect him to save for this coming school year at Dalhousie University.

The biochemistry and microbiology student will also volunteer to work with cancer patients, something he hopes will eventually help him get into medical school.

Mr. Amos is also fortunate that his parents had the foresight and the ability to save for his education, and will pay for the bulk of his university costs, roughly $18,000 for tuition, living expenses, travel and incidentals. That means Mr. Amos, who also got a scholarship and benefited from an inheritance, does not have to rely on student aid while getting his undergraduate degree.

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Thousands of other postsecondary students, and their parents, are struggling with deciding between earning a paycheque this summer or volunteering, taking unpaid work that may further their careers.

Although Mr. Amos did not need a paid job, his parents certainly expected him to find one this summer. "We both feel that he should be working and contribute to his spending money," said his mother, Martha Hoyt.

Before he started working, they sat down and discussed with Mr. Amos how much he was expected to contribute to the coming school year. "For kids to learn to budget is one of the best gifts they can take away," Ms. Hoyt said.

They were, however, equally supportive of his volunteering without pay.

"The value of the volunteer experience is as essential as work. We want him to combine both. I think you set yourself up for success down the road when you volunteer," Ms. Hoyt said.

Alex Usher, president of Toronto-based consultancy firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, says it is difficult to put a dollars-and-cents value on an unpaid position. "Ultimately, you have to decide what you think that [unpaid] internship is worth."

Mr. Usher has these tips for students and parents:

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–If you are going to sacrifice earnings for experience, make sure that that experience is actually going to translate into real earnings in the long run. Do some research and find out how often these unpaid interns or volunteers end up finding financially rewarding work in their field. For instance, a volunteer position at a law firm might lead to a paying job the next summer, while an unpaid position teaching art might not.

–Full-time students get roughly $10,000 a year in tuition and education tax credits, on top of the $10,527 personal tax-credit allowance everyone receives from the Government of Canada. Those credits are often transferred to parents so they can reduce their tax bills. But if a student starts earning more than the basic personal amount, those credits can be used to offset their own taxes. If parents are planning on using the credits, they might want to keep an eye on how much the child is earning.

–If you decide to volunteer, rather than work, during the summer, you can still qualify to receive federal and provincial student aid. But you cannot ask for more because you chose an unpaid position and didn't earn anything during your vacation.

–If you decide to spend your summer volunteering, consider the impact on your résumé. Although it might result in valuable experience and making good contacts, some employers will want to see that you have been able to hold down a paying job before they hire you.

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