Students looking for ways to get a cheaper, faster college degree will inevitably run up against the suggestion that they enroll in summer school. And until recently that wasn't terrible advice. Taking advantage of lower off-season tuition offered by many schools or cheap classes at your hometown community college was a perfectly good way to clear out some less glamorous requirements and account for your summer without having to work too hard.
With desperately low on-time graduation rates—only about 38 percent of students at so-called four-year colleges actually manage to make it out in four years, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics—almost every college student should be thinking about ways to keep on track for graduation. And with 2012 graduates carrying an average debt load of nearly $30,000 according to the Project on Student Debt, looking for education bargains is a good idea as well.
But frugal freshmen aren't doing themselves any favors by planning to spend their summers flip-flopping through the cool linoleum-lined halls of the nation's community colleges. Summer school is depressing and wasteful, with a high opportunity cost. Savvy educational bargain hunters should take courses online instead.
Legend has it that summer vacation originates deep America's agricultural past. The young and strong were needed to work on the farm, the story goes, so the only option was to put academic instruction on hold during the fertile months. The fact that this myth is so tenacious shows just how far we have come from those pastoral roots. Farm work is heaviest in the spring and fall. Midsummer is a (relative) lull, perfect for working on the 3 Rs.
In fact, summer vacation (as P.J. O'Rourke so eloquently noted) has its roots deep in piles of horse crap. As urbanization got underway, the primary source of horsepower was still actual horses. City streets became unbearably gross in the heat, leading all sensible well-off people to flee to the countryside in warm weather. Combine that with lack of air conditioning and fear of spreading disease, and summer vacation suddenly makes a lot of sense. Modern college students face a greater risk of running into bullshit on campus than horse crap in the streets. Yet the weird tradition of summers off lives on.
Meanwhile, the dog days have become part of the rat race. Internships and summer jobs are just as important as your academic record when it comes time to sell yourself for wages. And if you can't land a competitive (under)paid gig checking Facebook and fetching coffee, you'd better at least find a way to go build a house or two for poor people somewhere exotic so that you can write movingly about it in a grad school application or cover letter later on.
As long as tuition keeps skyrocketing and graduation rates continue to wallow in the mud, though, the advice to grab some additional credits at a discount rate is still solid. There's just no reason to do it instead of making bank, building skills, or doing good.
"With the online revolution in education, there's no reason to pay name brand prices for generic courses when store brands will suffice." That's the advice from the admittedly biased folks at StraighterLine, which offers college courses online for a $99 sign-up fee plus about $50 for each course. They also have a clever setup to help you transfer those credits into the bricks and mortar academic world.
State university systems increasingly offer online options that may save you the hassle of transferring credits if you're already inside the network.
And there's no need to go exclusively down-market. Harvard would love to have you come burnish your resume (and improve their bottom line). The Cantabs claim an impressive pedigree for their summer offerings: "Begun in 1871, our program is the oldest academic summer program in the United States and continues today to offer a unique opportunity for intellectual exploration and cultural enrichment through the remarkable resources of Harvard University," but hasten to note that "your transcript will not indicate if a course was completed online or on campus."
So go find a haystack to laze in while you keep one eye on the livestock and one eye on your iPad. Graduation rates are low and student loans are high, but a little summer online learning might help you avoid becoming a statistic.
This article originally appeared at Slate. It is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, April 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of higher education. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.