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rob carrick

Before you decide how tough it is for young adults to afford college or university, work a summer in their shoes.

Postsecondary students have already started their summer jobs, and teenagers finishing high school will join them at the end of next month. They'll have until late August to earn their contribution toward costs that can be as high as $20,000 or more per year to attend university out of town.

Parental savings, grants, bursaries, scholarships and tax credits help students afford college or university, and so do student loans. Roughly half of students have borrowed money to pay their educational costs, with an average debt load in this group of $20,000 to $25,000 for undergrads after four years of study. One of the major reasons for this borrowing is the challenge of earning enough money in a summer job.

Let's quickly dispense with any ideas that full-time summer jobs for students are there for the taking. The Yconic/Abacus Data Survey of Canadian Millennials, which was conducted for The Globe and Mail earlier this year and involved 1,538 young people aged 15 to 33, found that just over one-third of young people worked more than 30 hours per week at their last summer job. Another 23 per cent worked less than 30 hours at the same job, while the rest were either working multiple part-time jobs, looking for work or taking summer classes.

Some students are doing admirably in the work force. According to the survey, which I'll discuss in much greater detail in future columns, close to one-quarter of young people working summer jobs made more than $8,000 for their (up to) four months' work. As we'll see in a moment, that could be enough money to cover tuition and books while attending school in town and living at home.

Unfortunately, the majority of young people working summer jobs are making a lot less. The survey shows that 10 per cent made less than $1,000 and 49 per cent made between $1,000 and $5,000.

According to the survey, earnings from summer jobs and other savings totalled less than $2,500 for 46 per cent of students prior to starting college or university, while another 23 per cent had $2,500 to $5,000.

Here's how far that money has to be stretched. According to Statistics Canada, the average 2013-14 undergraduate university tuition last year was $5,772. College tuition averaged $2,400 a year in Ontario for diploma programs, $3,600 for graduate certificate programs and $6,100 for bachelor's degree programs.

Extra costs for college and university students might include roughly $800 in fees for student activities and health coverage, and $1,000 or so for books and supplies. Out-of-town students should expect to pay another $10,000, at least, for living expenses and accommodation.

We'll assume working students save 75 per cent of their income for school and either spend the remainder or save it for other purposes. At that rate, someone earning $5,000 per summer would end up with $3,750, or about two-thirds of the average university tuition. Add another $1,500 for books and activities and a live-at-home student would be running a funding deficit of more than $3,000 for next year's costs. Living away, the deficit rises to $13,000 or so.

Looking strictly at how tuitions compare with student earnings doesn't present a complete picture. For that, you need to consider the various federal and provincial tax credits available to postsecondary students. There are tax credits for tuition, for general educational costs and for textbooks. Students may also benefit from tax breaks for moving expenses, public transit costs and interest paid on student loans.

The problem with many of these tax measures is that they're not especially useful to students. In 2014, Canadians owe zero in federal income tax if their income is below $11,138, which is where students working summer jobs are for the most part. Tax breaks for any students who otherwise would owe money could bring their tax bill to zero, but they won't generate refunds (that is, they're non-refundable).

These tax credits can be transferred to parents or grandparents, or kept aside by the student for use when he or she graduates and enters the work force. Again, though, there are limitations to consider. H&R Block's Cleo Hamel explains that the Canada Revenue Agency requires students to start using these tax breaks as soon as they generate taxable income. "You can't skip using the deductions because you decide you're not making much this year, and next year you'll make more."

Work a summer in a student's shoes and you'll see what a challenge it is to pay the bills for college or university. Give students your respect, if not your sympathy.

Globe app users please click here for a table showing university costs.

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