All those frequent-flyer points can pile up, especially now that airlines are making it harder than ever to redeem them for flights.
Why not spend them on something really useful—such as a college education?
Through its partnership with Toronto-based HigherEdPoints, Air Canada's loyalty program, Aeroplan, lets members use miles for tuition—and sometimes room and board—at 70 colleges and universities in Canada. Aeroplan members can redeem 35,000 miles to buy a $250 certificate that is credited directly to a student's account.
The miles can also be donated. An anonymous gift of miles to the University of New Brunswick's financial aid department enabled Jeremy Murray, a 22-year-old junior, to pay the fee for the wheelchair-accessible dormitory he needed during last year's summer session. "My loans and grants didn't cover the entire amount," says Murray, who wants to start a media company that employs people with disabilities when he graduates.
Under a deal with the provincial governments of Alberta and Ontairo, some students are also using HigherEdPoints toward their college loans.
Charles Bernatchez, a 26-year-old actuarial sciences graduate of the University of Alberta, used the program to reduce his student debt. Bernatchez cobbled together around 210,000 air miles that he had amassed and friends donated, which translated to $1,500 in student loan payments. Even though he works full time at a pension firm, he says the more than $40,000 he owes for his education strains his budget. "Things are really tight," says Bernatchez.
That contribution may seem small, but Bernatchez badly needs help augmenting his income to pay down his loans, he says: "I have a crap ton of debt that I have to pay off." To help shave dollars from that balance, Bernatchez says he amasses about 150,000 miles a year by using a Platinum American Express card to cover his reimbursable expenses for work and a youth group at which he volunteers.
Bernatchez isn't the only one with lots of debt. Canadians graduated with an average federal debt of $12,314 in the 2012-13 year. HigherEdPoints founder Suzanne Tyson is also talking with the federal government about accepting the miles as payment for this type of loan. (Canadian students are eligible for federal loans and provincial loans. Bernatchez, like most students, has both kinds.) About $125,000 in certificates have been redeemed since she started the company in late 2013, she says, adding that she hopes to expand to the U.S. eventually.
But the amount of credit that HigherEdPoints offers per mile—about C0.7¢—is low, compared to what's available to consumers through some U.S. programs, says Brian Kelly, chief executive officer of ThePointsGuy.com, a website that tracks rewards programs. Kelly says U.S. consumers who want to pay off their college debt might be better off getting a cash-back credit card, some of which have refunds that can run as high as 2¢ per mile, and putting that money toward college. "At the end of the day," he says, "cash is king."
In Canada, Tyson says, a lot of the cash-like redemptions wouldn't be transferrable to educational fees. "Cashback on a card is nice, but it can't be used to pay down tuition or a student loan," she says.