This entrepreneur helps students pay tuition by converting loyalty points into cash

The concept of HigherEdPoints came to Suzanne Tyson when she saw a gap in the system that made it hard for some students to access funding for school.

Suzanne Tyson came up with the concept after working in the loyalty card industry

Suzanne Tyson is CEO and founder of HigherEd Points. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

When Suzanne Tyson started HigherEdpoints five years ago, she never imagined the concept would lead to post-secondary students paying off $1.5 million in tuition fees.

Now she wants more students than ever to understand there are alternatives to borrowing money when it comes to paying tuition and repaying loans.

"We've converted 200 million loyalty points into $1.5 million in real, hard educational funding. So we're the largest source of private sector educational funding that's available to everyone," she said.

The concept is straightforward: convert existing loyalty points from friends or family into cash that can be used to pay off school tuition at most major universities and colleges in Canada.

Tyson said some students weren't able to access funding because their parents made too much money, while some couldn't get funding because their grades weren't high enough.

Here's how it works. You go into your loyalty points catalogue, get your confirmation code for every $250 you redeem and bring that code back to an account on HigherEd Points. Then you put in your information and student number. After that, HigherEd Points puts that money directly into the student’s account on the student’s behalf. (HigherEd Points)

"I thought there has to be another source of currency out there we could tap into," she said.

Tyson, an entrepreneur, has worked in many fields, from selling textbooks on campuses to working in the loyalty card industry. 

"I knew there were billions of dollars of unused loyalty points sitting in people's wallets," she said.

Tyson said most of the time, people are saving their points for a vacation, but it is more valuable to put those points towards an education.

"What our members are telling us is education never goes on sale — I can get a flight on sale, I can get a toaster on sale — but I can never get my tuition on sale."

Neah Aarons, a mature student, benefited from HigherEdpoints when she started at George Brown College in Toronto as a first year accounting student.

When returning to school after being in the workplace, Aarons had some Aeroplan points sitting in her account that were about to expire. She then transferred them and paid off $250 worth of tuition with her points.

As a mature student returning to school after being in the workplace, Neah Aarons had some Aeroplan points sitting in her account that were going to expire. She was only able to pay $250 worth of tuition with her points, but says the money she saved helped to pay for two textbooks. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"Two hundred and fifty bucks is still 250 bucks to me and it definitely helps out a little bit."

Aarons said she found the concept online when she was paying her tuition at the college.

"The idea of trying to help students pay off their loans in a different way that can help different people in different demographics, it's really interesting."

Women helping women

Tyson was a Canada SheEO venture winner in 2017, which means her idea for HigherEdPoints was picked up as one of the best Canadian ideas that year. The SheEO organization is based on a global community of women who support each other in business through financial support and advice.

Now, HigherEd Points is connected with Aeroplan, TD points and CIBC Aventura points. Since getting started, Tyson now has federal and some provincial loan programs on board. (HigherEd Points)

"The community of SheEO women are so supportive. If you have a need [and don't have the expertise], the community of other women helps you connect with other resources," she said. 

Tyson said she received some debt financing and the funding she received helped her secure advertising dollars for HigherEd Points.

But she said there were many challenges along the way.

When she started out in publishing, it was "a very male-dominated world," she said.

"In fact, in my very first interview, the president of the company actually said to me: 'I would hate to see a nice girl like you get hurt in the big bad world of business, because you remind me of my daughter,'" she recalled.

After starting with a handful of schools, HigherEd Points now works with over 100 colleges and universities to convert loyalty points into repayment. (HigherEd Points)

She said there is a high personal cost that comes with being a female entrepreneur. For her, that includes keeping the cash flowing while being a mother.

"You have to love what you're doing, because it's challenging to see your friends benefiting from the fruits of their labour in a corporate environment and a salary, when you're putting every dollar back into your business."


Kirthana Sasitharan is a Journalist with CBC News. Reach her on twitter @KirthanaSasitha.

with files from Lorenda Reddekopp, Paul Borkwood


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