Unconventional Funding Pathways Through Post-Secondary

Written by Liz Harrison

My post-secondary pathway has been unconventional. I began in the world of work as an 18-year-old tradesperson, not an academic, and I am currently enrolled simultaneously in a Master of Education degree and a Graphic Design and Interactive Media Diploma. Although my journey has been non-traditional, there are even more roads not taken; had I known some of these existed, I may have been even more empowered to travel differently. I share my journey in the hopes that you will feel empowered to craft and map your own best-fit educational road, on or off the beaten track. 

I started in trades. I was always, ALWAYS, doing hair growing up, moving from dangerous, experimental sibling haircuts to polished grad updos for friends, and my practical parents suggested hair school. I attended straight out of high school, funded by babysitting savings and my parent’s generosity. Hair school was about $ 7,000, and I lived cheaply, budgeting carefully to make it through the month on about $250 a month for rent and $150 a week for everything else.

After school, I followed my family’s move to Yellowknife and began hairdressing, shifting from an hourly wage to full commission within six months. It was the early 2000s, and I bought a ton of Guess purses with my earnings – fun but, unfortunately, not a lucrative investment. I took cabs almost daily instead of buying a vehicle because I couldn’t get a loan without a three-year history of commission-based pay stubs. I should have been taking the bus and saving those hairdressing tips! I was unthinking and frivolous with money, as so many of us are in our early twenties. At 23, I bought a car for $ 20,000 a month before making my first move to southern Alberta and heading into my first undergraduate years. I did two years of education, then a year of business, before deciding I was getting into student loan debt without really knowing what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’ (in some ways, I’m still deciding). I returned to family and hair in the north for a few years, took a small chunk out of my student debt, and then, two years later, returned to post-secondary to finish my Education and Arts Bachelor’s degrees at the University of Lethbridge. 

What if I had started working towards my trade in high school?

Had there been access in my small-town high school to my trade as exists in many Albertan high schools today, I could have graduated fully certified with my first year of hairdressing education, the equivalent of a year-long post-secondary program, and go straight to work in a salon under a Journeyman stylist (Government of Alberta, 2024). My alma mater’s hair school program has doubled to about $15,000 (Est-elle Academy of Hair Design, 2024). Students across the province, and in the high school in which I currently teach, can enroll in Cosmetology 10, 20, 30, and 40 and leave school ready to go to work (Government of Alberta, 2024; Edmonton Public Schools, 2024; Calgary Board of Education, 2024). 

What if I had been saving instead of spending in those early earning years?

On my first day of orientation at Medicine Hat College, a very wise Dean asked me and the rest of the freshman audience to calculate what we were spending per hour class block. He challenged us to tally up not just our tuition and books, but our living costs and the wages we weren’t making because we were spending time in school. I’d left behind a full clientele, decent paycheque, and generous tips. I calculated that I was spending $500/hr per class. This realization got me up for 8:00 AM classes and annoyed me if a professor missed a lecture (graduate student me knows life happens and that I will need grace at times, too). 

Until I saw those numbers laid out, I hadn’t recognized just how much I had failed to save over the years I’d been working full-time. I had some savings, but I didn’t understand then that these early years could launch me into a new life debt-free or secure my financial future through savings or investment. 

What if I had learned to live as cheaply as I had in hairdressing school? 

I could have graduated debt-free from the University. Instead, I used student loans to make car payments, doubling the interest I’d pay on the vehicle. 

I used student loans for my living expenses. It never occurred to me that I could take fewer classes per semester and work more hours to break even and avoid the debt altogether. I worked only enough to cover my entertainment. I had a ball, but after ten years of student debt repayment, I can tell you those highlights are ancient history. 

What if I had realized I could take fewer classes over a longer period of time? 

It never occurred to me that I could take fewer classes per semester and work more hours to break even and avoid the debt altogether. I carried a five-class load and feel I’d shorted one with too little time to dedicate. Not everyone wants to live small or within their means. Not everyone minds taking on debt – at least on the incoming side of the experience. Not everyone wants to drive a beater, or take fewer classes, or move somewhere new to make their plans fit. But what if I had given myself the gift of a financial foundation instead of a pit? 

What trade-offs did I make to fund my learning? 

I applied for and received the Northern Student Teacher Bursary (Government of Alberta, 2024), which was valued then at $16,000 with three years owed in return, an hour north of Edmonton or further. Accepting this funding would set my career and life trajectory for years, a huge responsibility, but I felt the pull to finish my studies and begin creating and living this new life. 

I stacked six summer semester courses at the U to finish course requirements so I could avoid having to return south for one more semester of classes (one I received my lowest mark ever in, costing me my cords of distinction), then hit the road in my Chevy, towing a tiny U-Haul behind me with only furniture I could lift myself since I didn’t know anyone in the city yet. I received an extra $ 2,000 for a total of $ 18,000 from the NASTB to complete my final practicum in my chosen northern location, and three years turned into ten. 

What if you could trade a few years of unusual or far-flung living for funding? 

A fun fact about becoming a resident of the Northwest Territories (Government of the Northwest Territories, 2024) is that after two years, you become eligible to access their Student Financial Assistance program (Government of the Northwest Territories, 2024). My 4-year residency granted me access to a $ 60,000 loan. 

What if you could secure or negotiate funding for ongoing education as part of your total compensation package? 

I knew I wanted to return to academia again someday, and I made a choice to guarantee I could make that happen for myself: I invested time and energy researching the teacher contracts in the province, seeking divisions that prioritized continuing education. In our last negotiation, teachers in my district secured a maximum of $ 10,000 a year in academic or otherwise approved continuing education. This is not common across the province, and although it was less previous to this signing, at $ 5,000 a year when I began, it was never insignificant. 

What if you stopped following someone else’s financial and cultural script and wrote your own? 

There is so much pressure to present a certain standard, to follow a certain timeline, and to adhere to a certain progression or order of experiences and events. But – if nobody’s told you yet – you don’t have to be in debt to build yourself a better life through education. Your life is worth learning to play the long game. Set yourself up for success, and find opportunities to invest in yourself and your life.  

I’m in the last course of my M.Ed. and have six courses to go in my Graphic Design Diploma. One program has been the inhalation of experts and research, then another an exhalation of creative magnitude and programming. Almost all of it was generously invested in me by my employer, useful to me in my day-to-day teaching, and supportive of my love for writing, presenting, product development, coaching, and all other teaching-adjacent side-hustles. 

I’ve gotten better at following my own path: I’m taking my design courses ONE at a time instead of three to accommodate my full-time teaching and M.Ed. studies. I have become and must remain a time-management wizard, with meticulous scheduling and “chopping the wood,” as Dr. Robert LeBlanc of the ULeth Faculty of Education would say. My parent’s off-grid cabin in the North is heated mainly by woodstove, and the chopping is easy enough if done daily, but it’s painful to catch up if it’s let go for a few days. I am bank-rolling these programs up-front, reimbursed yearly. At the same time, because of another unconventional choice to live small and purchase a $103 000 townhouse condo instead of a $300,000 home, I’ve been able to fund a new vehicle and both programs while saving up an emergency fund, refilling my RRSPs following my first-time home buyer withdrawal, and repaying my student loans from the undergrad. Both my vehicle and student loans will be gone within the year, and I plan to be financially free shortly after, with even my mortgage gone in a few more years if I’m intentional. How many other millennials can say that? 

What will you do for yourself? What map will you create? 

You have the power and ability to do things in ways that best fit YOU. Don’t join the student debt crisis by doing what you think you are “supposed” to be doing or trying to fit yourself into someone else’s tracks. You don’t have to do life the way anyone else is doing it. Make the choices that fit your pathway, and if you find no roads ahead of you, build your own.

References

Calgary Board of Education. (2024). Cosmetology. Career and Technology Centre: Credentialed, Dual-Credit, & Pre-Placement Programs. [retrieved 2 February 2024]. https://school.cbe.ab.ca/school/CTC/teaching-learning/classes-departments/cts/cosmetology/Pages/Default.aspx 

Edmonton Public Schools. 2024. Academics: CTS, locally developed and complementary courses: Costmetology. Queen Elizabeth School [retrieved 2 February 2024].

https://queenelizabeth.epsb.ca/academics/ctslocallydevelopedandcomplementarycourses/cosmetology/

Est-elle Academy of Hair Design. (2024). Course information. Est-elle Academy of Hair Design: The School The Salon The Barbershop [retrieved 2 February 2024]. https://www.est-elle.ab.ca/index.php?area_id=1001&page_id=1002 

Government of Alberta (2024). Northern student teacher bursary: Return of service bursary that encourages teachers to live and work in rural and remote northern Alberta locations. Alberta.ca https://www.alberta.ca/northern-student-teacher-bursary 

Government of Alberta (2007-2024). Apprenticeship and industry training. Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training [retrieved 2 February 2024]. https://tradesecrets.alberta.ca/get-started/ 

Government of Alberta (1995-2024). Programs of study: Cosmetology (COS) (2010) [retrieved 2 February 2024]. LearnAlberta.ca https://www.learnalberta.ca/ProgramOfStudy.aspx?lang=en&ProgramId=475863# 

Government of the Northwest Territories (2024). Living in the NWT. Education, Culture, and Employment [retrieved 2 February 2024]. https://www.ece.gov.nt.ca/en/services/prospective-teacher-information/living-nwt 

Government of the Northwest Territories (2024). Student financial assistance. Education, Culture, and Employment [retrieved 2 February 2024].

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