O, Canada

By Marc L. Schulhof

September 1998 — When the baby-boomer parents of many of today’s college-bound students were in school, Canada was getting a lot of attention as a haven for Vietnam War resisters. Today, our quiet neighbor to the north shines as a sanctuary from sky-high college bills.

Thanks to support from Canadian taxpayers and the near-record-low value of the Canadian dollar, sending a student to a university up north costs far less than at most U.S. private schools, and even less than paying out-of-state tuition at many nationally recognized state schools.

Because all Canadian colleges except for a few small, religious institutions are government-supported, the private-public divide doesn’t exist there. And by most accounts, top Canadian schools offer educational opportunities on a par with well-regarded U.S. schools. Yankees need special student authorizations to attend school in Canada, but you can easily get one once you’ve shown that you have the financial wherewithal to pay college bills and enough cash left over to get back to the States after graduation.

The 68-cent Dollar

A year of tuition at the average private school in the U.S. this year runs $12,664, according to the College Board. Annual tuition and fees at the University of North Carolina, the top public schools based on our ratings of quality and cost, runs $2,234 for residents but $11,220 for out-of-staters. At a high-cost public school, like the University of Vermont, residents pay $7,550 and out-of-staters, $18,098.

Now look north: With the loonie – as the Canadian dollar is affectionately called because it has the image of a loon on one side – limping along at about 68 cents on the U.S. dollar, tuition for international students this year ranges from $2,700 (U.S.) at the University of Northern British Columbia to $9,400 for most degrees at the University of British Columbia. All dollar amounts in this article are in U.S. dollars and are based on an exchange rate of 68 cents U.S. for $1 Canadian.

And Canadian schools don’t seem eager to drive up costs for American students. In fact, when the Province of Ontario deregulated international-student fees in 1996, the University of Toronto lowered its international-tuition charges. The University of Windsor, directly across the river from Detroit and within striking range of a few American universities, slashed its tuition for U.S. students by about 40% last year, to $3,500.

“I came here because it was the best school for the money that I could afford,” says Jeannine Hamilton, a New Yorker who just graduated from McGill University, in Montreal, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She plans to start graduate school there next year. “I’ve been a campus tour guide for three years, and the first reaction from American students and parents is always how cheap the school is.”

When it comes to living expenses, too, the powerful U.S. dollar pays off. At the University of Guelph (pronounced Gwelf), which is 60 miles from Toronto, for example, room and board this year runs as little as $3,400, compared with about $4,400 at the average U.S. public school.

What about student aid? Don’t expect a Canadian school to offer need-based aid. But U.S. students are eligible for subsidized student loans from U.S. lenders if their Canadian school participates in the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation program – which most do. The same goes for the Hope Scholarship or Lifetime Learning tax credits. One financial drawback: It’s all but impossible for a U.S. student to get an off-campus job. There are no restrictions on working on campus, but competition for jobs at smaller schools can be fierce.

Is it a Bargain, or just Cheap?

The savings at Canada’s 90 universities can be substantial. But what about the quality of the education?

The best-known Canadian schools, like prominent U.S. schools, earn their reputations for strong academics and other supporting factors. A fabulous location doesn’t hurt when it comes to attracting new students. Admissions standards vary. McGill, for example, generally looks for a minimum SAT score of 1200 and a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher. To be admitted to the University of Toronto, you need a solid 3.0 average or higher, and 1200 on the SAT.

“This is the Harvard of Canada,” Hamilton says proudly of McGill. She turned down Case Western Reserve ($18,546 tuition and fees this year) and Carnegie Mellon ($21,570), and earned a prestigious degree for about half the price.

Though many college counselors have only a murky idea about Canadian schools, those who are familiar with them tend to rank them alongside American schools; that is, they see no inherent difference except that tuition is paid in loonies rather than dollars.

“I’d put Toronto and McGill somewhere between New York University and Cornell,” says private admissions consultant Steven Roy Goodman, in Washington, D.C. “These are high-level schools.”

The most frequent comparison is between Canadian universities, all of which are publicly supported, and some of America’s nationally recognized state schools – making the Canadian schools a strong consideration for students who might not have access to the state schools of their choice.

“For a California student to get accepted at a public school out of state, such as the University of Virginia, is difficult says Joanne Kesten, the school counselor at Westridge School, in Pasadena, California. “So then the option becomes the in-state system. And even that’s getting insane.” The University of California at Berkeley, Kesten notes, received 30,000 applications for about 3,700 spots this fall.

More important, perhaps, than what college-admissions counselors think is the perception of corporate recruiters and graduate-school admissions officers. If a Canadian degree won’t help you land a solid job or get you into the master’s-degree program you want, then it’s not a bargain. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem, either.

“In interview, both for business school and my first job, I found it very valuable to be able to speak to the broader issues than just what was going on in American business,” says Robert Stevens, an alumnus of the University of Guelph and now a vice-president at Merrill Lynch’s Global Loan Syndications group, in New York City. “I took every opportunity to show that I had an international perspective.”

At the University of Toronto last year, 22 U.S. companies – including Goldman Sachs, Intel and Microsoft – joined the ranks of on-campus corporate recruiters; by mid June, seven U.S. firms had already contacted the career office to start courting next year’s graduates.

Currently, only about 3,000 American students are on the rolls at Canadian universities. But with continued low prices and more aggressive marketing by the schools, that number is sure to grow. For parents worried that their children will be in a foreign land and that the Canadian mail is notoriously slow, fear not: College students don’t write letters anyway.

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