Harper was born in Toronto, the first of three sons of Margaret (née Johnston) and Joseph Harris Harper, an accountant at Imperial Oil. He attended Northlea Public School and, later, John G. Althouse Middle School and Richview Collegiate Institute, both in Central Etobicoke. He graduated in 1978, and was a member of Richview Collegiate's team on Reach for the Top, a television quiz show for Canadian high school students.
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Harper then enrolled at the University of Toronto but dropped out after two months. He then moved to Edmonton, Alberta, where he found work in the mail room at Imperial Oil. Later, he advanced to work on the company's computer systems. He took up post-secondary studies again at the University of Calgary, where he completed a bachelor's degree in economics. He later returned there to earn a master's degree in economics, completed in 1993. Harper has kept strong links to the University of Calgary, and often lectured there. He is the most recent prime minister since Joe Clark without a law degree.