Brain Gain: American Students Flock North

By Steven Roy Goodman

15 July 2006 — While the U.S. Congress debates who should be able to enter the United States, young Americans have been voting with their feet, by opting for higher education in other countries.

Britain reports an 80-per-cent jump, to 2,700, in full-time U.S. undergraduates in the past five years. And Australia is so interested in U.S. students that its embassy here has a special office for them.

But the real beneficiary is Canada, whose U.S. enrollment has jumped 220 per cent since 1997, to more than 8,000. McGill University has about one-quarter of them, but other schools aren’t far behind.

The attraction? First and foremost, money. Parents are increasingly concerned about the $45,000 yearly tuition and fees of many private universities, out-of-state charges for public universities that are almost as high and financial-aid packages that are largely loans.

Given the massive endowments many universities are sitting on, it’s small wonder many cash-strapped families look abroad.

Not long ago, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland put on a three-day seminar to showcase its programs for foreign students, and Canadian universities are just as aggressive. Queen’s University boasts that it now has 6,096 alumni living in the United States.

Canada is poised to benefit even more from U.S. enrollment in the years ahead. As well as cost, prospective students here increasingly use a global context to evaluate universities’ academic quality, campus life and career prospects. Parents shake their heads at $1,000-a-week tuition charges and curriculums that seem to make no sense.

Last year, New Englander Sarah Wilson chose McGill over Brown, an Ivy League school, because she didn’t want to leave $100,000 in debt. “At Brown, they hold your hand more,” she says, but “for $100,000, I’ll hold my own hand.”

Obstacles still exist. Canadian universities are less expensive, but American schools have been more creative at financial-aid packaging. Not all Americans appreciate the quality of the top Canadian schools, students concerned about returning home to work or for graduate school will think twice before crossing the border, and there is the taboo issue of anti-Americanism.

But money and proximity are powerful draws: Cutting a tuition bill in half is pretty attractive.

Even at that, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada estimates that international students contribute $2.7-billion annually to the economy. The Department of Commerce says international students contribute much more – $13-billion – to the U.S. economy every year. But there is concern in Washington, because the Canadian number is rising.

Steven Roy Goodman is a Washington consultant who advises U.S. students on postsecondary education options at home and abroad.

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