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American brains are Canada's gain

Cash-strapped families increasingly drawn to lower cost of studying north of the border - and this country's schools are cashing in

Globe and Mail Update

Libby MacCarthy had never been to Canada when she applied to Dalhousie University at the suggestion of a friend. After a campus visit during a cold snap in April, the Maine native was still undecided about the merits of a Canadian education.

But when the offer from her top U.S. choice arrived without a promise of financial aid, the annual $25,000 (U.S.) difference in cost made up her mind.

"Canadian universities are like hidden gems," said the 21-year-old, who starts her fourth year in Halifax in September. "A lot of them are Ivy League-quality schools and they are just a lot less expensive."

At a time when many U.S families are finding they have fewer dollars than they expected to spend on higher education, the price of a Canadian undergraduate degree is looking attractive.

That feeling is being fuelled by increased marketing from the Canadian government and more interest by Canadian schools, drawn to the American market as a way to maintain enrolment, attract more tuition dollars and give their campus a more international outlook.

Signs of that push are showing up this spring. Many schools say their U.S. applications are up, and so is the number of students saying yes to offers.

"The U.S. is one of our target areas, no question," said Asa Kachan, the registrar at Dalhousie, where applications from American students are up 14 per cent this year.

In a province with 11 universities and a declining high-school population, Ms. Kachan says attracting foreign students is vital. The school does that by tapping into networks of U.S. guidance counsellors and sending staff to key high schools. Foreign students account for 8 per cent of enrolment, but Dalhousie wants to raise that to 10 or 12 per cent.

Across the country, about 9,000 Americans studied at Canadian universities and colleges this year, up from 2,300 just 12 years ago, according to Canada's embassy in Washington. On the flipside, an estimated 29,000 Canadians headed south in 2007-2008 for undergraduate or graduate studies, a reflection of the size of the American system.

At Montreal's McGill University, where there is a long tradition of U.S. recruiting, Americans accounted for 12 per cent of this year's freshman class. Application numbers this spring are even with previous years, but acceptance rates are up 4 per cent.

McGill has seen a steady increase in American students, with numbers rising by 22 per cent in the past five years. Senior administrators say name recognition and recruiting efforts have contributed to that rise, but add cost is a factor.

"When we recruit we do not talk about being cheap," said Morton Mendelson, the university's deputy provost of student life and learning. "We say come to McGill. It's a world-class education. But people who are buying the education can do the math."

Foreign tuition fees range from triple to more than five times those paid by local students, depending on the province. Still, they are tens of thousands of dollars less than the cost of private U.S. schools and are on par with fees charged by state colleges to local students, depending on exchange rates.

For a foreign student, for instance, Dalhousie estimates that tuition, books, housing and health insurance run $23,636 a year. At Boston University, a school that often competes for the same U.S. students, the equivalent annual cost comes to $61,794.

At the University of Toronto, where applications from U.S. high-school students have tripled in the past seven years, student recruiting director Janet Hurd said economic and political factors as well as the value of the Canadian dollar have helped to drive that trend, but so have outreach efforts in cities such as Washington, Boston and New York.

Ms. Hurd said when she tells American parents to expect to pay about $30,000 for tuition, books and housing, they often ask if that is for a term or the whole year.

What seems like a bargain for U.S. parents can be an income opportunity for schools, although rules on fees vary among provinces. At the University of Waterloo, increasing foreign student numbers from 10 to 20 per cent is part of a strategy to diversify income.

Waterloo president David Johnston says the school's first goal in attracting international students is to increase the quality of education, but he adds that the dollars this generates are attractive at a time when campuses are facing budget cuts. Canadian students pay roughly $6,000 in tuition at Waterloo, with the province contributing about $6,000. International students pay upwards of $20,000 in tuition. "The economics are attractive," he said.

Other universities say the money argument is not that compelling, and point out that recruiting and supporting foreign students also costs more. Until this year in Quebec, extra fees from international students went to the province, although that policy is being phased out for some programs.

Ms. MacCarthy said her time at Dalhousie has taught her a lot about Canada, and about how others see her country. At first, she said, it was difficult to hear others say negative things about Americans. "You get things said that are very hurtful, so you have to learn to deal with that."

The election of a new president, she said, has made it easier to be an American on a Canadian campus.

Her next hurdle is to decide where she will go after graduation. "I'm considering staying in Canada," she said.


A study in contrasts

New England is a favourite recruiting ground for Canadian schools, as are most border states and California with its large population. Here's a look at how a leading Atlantic university, Dalhousie in Halifax - which is smaller in size, but has a law and medical school - compares with a U.S. counterpart, Boston University.

Total students15,19731,766
Total faculty1,1432,622
Tuition, fees for foreign students$14,060$44,975
Cost of books, supplies$1,000$1,100
Cost of residence$7,940$13,862
Health insurance$636$1,715
Total cost$23,636$61,794

*School was founded in 1837 as a Methodist

seminary in Vermont, but moved to Boston in 1867.

Converted U.S. dollar figures may not add exactly due to rounding.


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