Summer School Is For Suckers

Take online classes instead


summer school?
Mike Licht, / photo on flickr

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

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  1. There is an entire generation whose main complaint in life is how they have been saddled with enormous debts for an arguably useless degree.

    Yet these same people will recoil in horror if you suggested that “For-Profit” education may have served them better.

  2. So go find a haystack to laze in while you keep one eye on the livestock and one eye on your iPad

    I hope you’re not suggesting that online courses are somehow less rigorous than traditional classroom delivery, KMW? With the exception of MOOCs, where one can come and go as one pleases, online courses tend to me more rigorous than traditional classrooms as one needs to be a motivated learner who works well independently.

  3. And with 2012 graduates carrying an average debt load of nearly $30,000, looking for education bargains is a good idea as well

    Pussies. It was $30,000/year when I went to Johns Hopkins…in 1990 (it’s over $60,000/year now…that’s fucking insane). Luckily I had it all paid for me. Higher education is such an amazing scam.

    1. Scams work because most people are stupid.

      1. I’m shopping for a new place right now. Ran across one that was a little too good to be true, but thought hey why not.

        Just got approved, sight unseen, no credit report, no nothing. Just send in the deposit and he’ll send me the keys.

        I can’t believe some people fall for that.

        1. Did you tell him to send you the keys first?

          1. Yeah I did. I said no, you send me the lease and keys, and then you’ll get my money.

            No response as of yet, and I don’t expect one.

  4. The other day some commenters had a discussion of their church experiences. I would like to show the following Web site which at least acknowledges the difficulties (though I don’t know how good their solutions are):

    1. You are abjectly, deliciously pathetic, Catholic troll. It’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy it.

      1. Um, thank you?

        (the Web site is by an out-and-proud Protestant evangelical)

      2. I’ll give Eddie this: He is way more likable than Bo.

        1. Also, at least he explicitly connected it to recent conversations that involved a number of people. I hardly call that Trollish. Earnest, maybe.

    2. WTF is this? More yearning for Medievalism?

  5. Summer school is depressing and wasteful, with a high opportunity cost. Savvy educational bargain hunters should take courses online instead.

    Online schooling is great, but there are many technical subjects which require labs and such, and taking the more demanding of these classes during the summer is quite convenient.

  6. Summer classes were great in my time at a Canadian university. Compressed time frames and smaller class sizes. Loved it.

    1. Compressed time frames

      That’s because summer in Canada is only two weeks long, if that.

  7. Sometimes summer school is the only option. I needed to take Complex Analysis over the summer to stay on track, and Berkeley wouldn’t take transfer credits from some some mickey mouse online college. My sole option was UCLA, so that’s what I did.

    1. Transferability of credits is a major obstacle in the scaling-up of online post-secondary education models. The second is the Carnegie Unit.

      1. Yep. UCLA is on the quarter system and Berkeley is on semester, so I had to petition to get 4 units instead of 2.7. And they were suspicious of the A+.

        1. Haha I’ve been to three schools. Catholic University of America, the University of Richmond, and the local community college. So I tried to transfer my credits to Virginia Commonwealth University. They only accepted one school. Guess which one?

          1. Given that VCCS has transfer agreements with all the state universities, I’m guessing J. Sargeant Reynolds.

  8. Wow. How about those Clippers? Now I’m going to see Jesse Jackson’s face everywhere for a few weeks, which I really don’t care for.

    1. This is what I’m referring to:…..c-johnson/

      Odd, that an owner of an NBA team doesn’t like black people. He’s in the wrong business.

      1. Look at the picture of his girlfriend. It’s not that he hates black people, he just has a weird psycho sexual thing IMO. It’s more a bizarre fetish/insecurity thing IMO.

        1. He all but spelled it out for anyone who is actually listening. Those who choose not to listen have all the ammo they need though to make this into standardized racism.

          He doesn’t “hate” blacks. He just doesn’t want his friends calling him to tell him that his decades younger mistress has to seek out virile younger (than him) black men to find satisfaction that his older ass can’t provide.

  9. I loved summer classes and would have probably done a lot better if I could have skipped fall semesters and just did all my classes in the spring and summer (had seasonal depression that was worst Oct-Dec). I also don’t think I would have done well with online classes, though I suppose it would depend on the subject matter. As for cost, aren’t online classes just as expensive as on-campus classes? I suppose you’d save on housing/food if it’s keeping you from having to live on-campus, but when I was looking at grad school programs the online ones charged just as much as campus-based programs. Of course, I also worked full-time most of the time I was in college, so that cut down on the “opportunity cost.”

    1. As for cost, aren’t online classes just as expensive as on-campus classes?

      Depends on the institution. Some schools actually charge more per credit hour for online instruction than traditional delivery. Again, I believe that this is due, in part, with the current difficulties universities are having in scaling-up these programs to make them profitable. A lot of that has to do with the business model of traditional universities.

  10. OT: So glancing up to the right there is an add for “Ethical Engagement Rings”

    Is this a new environmentalist thing? Do I even want to know?

    1. Probably something to do with conflict tin or some bullshit like that.

      1. It’s a way of talking your girl out of having to piss away money on an overpriced diamond.

        I fully support this initiative.

        1. I got my wife’s ring at an estate sale. Not very expensive, and it had sentimental value.
          One of the very few instances of pure genius in my life.

      2. Palin’s Buttplug knows all about conflict tin.

        1. Ahhh, good times.

  11. I graduated in 1988 with $10K in debt. Had an Aerospace Engineering degree from Penn State. Granted, not the most prestigious education in the world, but not horrible.

    Just ran that through the old inflation calculator and that is equivalent to about $20k 2013 dollars. So if this is right and most kids graduate with $30k of debt, the cost of a middle of the road education only went up 50%. $30K? That’s not even the cost of a new car.

    What’s the issue? What am I missing here? Are we saying you can’t find a job unless you’re Ivy League educated?


      It used to be a summer of working could put enough in the bank to pay for college. The cost has risen enormously. Because of government of course, but somehow the government run education system doesn’t think government is to blame for the education bubble.

      1. I never came close to being able to pay for a year of school on my min wage summer jobs. I got loans and paid them back…as promised.

        1. Only 10K in debt though, and with a worthwhile degree. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t multiple aspects to the problem, but the fact is that the government has pumped up the cost of education so much that it is essentially impossible to go to college without going into debt, sometimes a staggering level of debt.

          1. Yeah, okay, Ima call bullshit on her $30k average debt. Just looked up PSU’s in-state tuition and it’s $17K per year. You are right, that’s absurd. I paid like $3400 a year.

            Bitch away, youngsters. You ARE getting fucked.

            1. Bitch away, youngsters. You ARE getting fucked.

              Haha I’m not getting fucked. I noped the fuck out after I did the math. I may not be earning a huge amount of money, but I’m not in debt either.

              It is annoying though when looking for a new place. See, I have a terrible credit score because I never use credit. Meanwhile someone who lives paycheck to paycheck with credit cards covering the bumps in life has great credit.

              I consider it an example of how the nation is in decline.

    2. Lots of factors. Did you get in state tuition?

      Also, if you set foot in Southern CA as a 21 year old with an Aerospace Engineering degree from Penn State, you would have a job in less than a week. A lot of these kids are majoring in bullshit. They graduate, see the harsh realities of the real world, and go back to grad school to major in more bullshit.

      And don’t get me started on the people who think they are to good for the jobs available out there. They want to do their pet hobby, and make a comfortable living doing it. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they want to work at a “non-profit”, and are on public assistance until they find that perfect job where they can self-actualize.

      1. Yeah, I paid in-state tuition. But that’s part of it. You buy the education you can afford. I had 5 roommates, so rent was cheep. Didn’t have a car, rode my bike or walked. Ate mac and cheese and Ramen noodles. My bed was a mattress they were giving away when they remodeled the Holiday Inn and, yes, we had the big utility wire spool as a coffee table. And it was fun living like bums for five years.

        Do college kids still do those things?

        1. That’s all well and good, but the cost of tuition has well outpaced inflation. See the link I posted at 3:53 EDT. It is literally not possible to pay for or even significantly defray the cost of tuition with a summer job.

          Students still live on Ramen and meal plans, still live in crappy places with their friends. That’s marginal compared to the increase in tuition costs.

        2. I did. I lived in a fraternity house for 4 out of 5 years, which was really cheap. 2 of those years, I got paid to work as a chef, which included free room and board. I found my mattress in an alley, and didn’t even have a bed frame. I got a TV at a swap meet for $20, and put it on stand made of crates. My single biggest expense was booze, but most of that was covered by the fraternity.

          Since I was the chef, I could order food for me and my friends wholesale from Alliant Food Services. Boxes of Kraft Mac N Cheese were 5 for $1.

          I enjoyed every minute of it.

        3. Ahhh…the good ol’ days.

    3. I just returned to college and am attending a 4 year CUNY institution. The current tuition is 3,000 per semester and the summer classes are the same per credit rate or 3K for 12-18 credits.

  12. ‘Farm work is heaviest in Spring and Fall. Midsummer is a (relative) lull.. ‘

    I’m certain this is usually true, but it does vary with location. Around here, school ends in May and the wheat is harvested in June, so the popular myth makes some sense.

  13. Online can be as boring as in class, and especially if the teacher is boring. However, there is absolutely NO substitute for a good teacher in front of you who can get your “learning juices” flowing even if the course is not one of your primary interests. This is particularly true of history courses which can be boring even for history majors if they are not presented well, online OR in class.

    One of the many things that destroyed interest in history (for decades now) was having someone who majored in what used to be called Physical Education in college with a minor in history. They used to sit in the back of the class and sleep. However, they were hired to teach high school before anyone else because they could coach. This was reinforced by the general American contempt for history.

    Regrettably, the “wave of the future” seems to be courses online. Every Community College and State University (and a number of private) have jumped on this band wagon. The days of real learning are going away forever, and evermore. Gone are those times when people actually read books, talked to real live professors, studied and researched with other students. Welcome to the upcoming nation of Online Zombies.

    1. Give me a fucking break. Listening to that pompous professor drone on added nothing of value to many of my lectures. Thanks I can and do learn just fine without a prof. I don’t need him to read books. And if I do need human interaction there are these things called Skype and IM.

      1. Cytotoxic,

        You just proved my point. You must be one of those Zombies I’m talking about. There are millions of you now, so you people and those of your ilk really are the wave of the future. In fact that wave is here, now!
        Thanks for reinforcing my theory. Have a nice day.

    2. All those words. All those sentences. Yet you said absolutely nothing. That’s talent.

  14. funny pic above the article 🙂

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