Canadian Pitch: Cheap Tuition, Good Schools

Article excerpt

Some of the top names in American higher education were pursuing Matthew Jackson: Cornell, the College of William and Mary, and Johns Hopkins.

But instead of choosing one of those, the Fairfax, Va., teen packed his coat, gloves, and gear for a 600-mile trip north across the border to Montreal's McGill University.

The deciding factor: the weak Canadian dollar. Some of those prestigious American institutions would have cost almost $30,000 a year, Mr. Jackson figured. But with today's favorable US-Canada exchange rate, McGill was a bargain at barely one-third the cost. "I was interested in going someplace different," says Jackson, a rising sophomore. "McGill was just as well regarded as the others, but it was so much cheaper." That promise of smaller student loans is just one of the reasons Canadian universities are on an intensive campaign to woo US students. In mailings and at college fairs, northern schools are also touting strong academic credentials and safe campuses in a bid to make Canada the smart alternative to US colleges. "It's not an easy market," says John Corlett, dean of students at the University of Windsor, across the river from Detroit. "There's lot of rules and regulations we have to obey and many US high- schoolers are already overwhelmed by the choices." Still, many say the two-year-old push to lure students north is showing results. About 3,300 Americans studied in Canada in 1997-98, a 15.5 percent jump over two years, according to Statistics Canada, the government data cruncher. Far more Canadians, about 23,000, study in the United States, of course. But that hasn't slowed Canadian schools. "Almost all of our 90 universities are now marketing themselves to America," says Jennifer Goldstone, a spokesman for the Ottawa-based Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The Canadian embassy has helped put together a Web site and a "Study in Canada" CD-ROM. That's a change. Until the 1990s, Canadian universities were jammed with students and well-funded by provinces. Now, enrollment is flat and provinces slashed funding 21 percent between 1997 and 1991, a recent AUCC report says. So far, such cuts have not affected academic quality, close observers say. But it's a fundamental reason schools like the University of Toronto are on big endowment drives as well as working to attract international students who pay full tuition. "We were very impressed with what we saw," says Jeanette Spires, an independent college counselor in Chicago who visited 11 Canadian universities last fall. "They were genuinely interested in having US kids come up and have a good experience." So far this year, Ms. Spires has recommended Canadian universities to eight of the 40 high school students she assists each year. She and others say there is little reason to worry that a future employer may not be familiar with the name of a Canadian university. "Microsoft hires hundreds of people from the University of Waterloo," Spires says. "If it's an international company, they understand the value of a broader view of the work world." Carl Behrend, director of guidance at Orchard Park High School near Buffalo, N.Y., an affluent area, welcomes the influx of Canadian universities at college fairs. "The value of a Canadian degree is certainly marketable today," he says. "We have at least a half dozen kids this year who have applied to Canadian universities." But low cost, he and others say, is only one factor drawing Americans north. Safety is big, too. Canada's tough gun laws and low crime rates make for safer cities and campuses. That, along with good academics and close proximity to the US is often a winner with students and parents. "I just fell in love with Toronto," says Courtney Rogers, a Nashville, Tenn., resident who is among the top 2 percent of students nationwide. "I got brochures from 75 schools and I was looking at Boston University and New York University. …