Liz Eldridge didn’t plan to attend college in Canada. But since no particular American college appealed to her, her parents encouraged Liz, then a Burlington High School senior, to apply to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
UBC offered a number of advantages: Like all Canadian institutions of higher learning, it had an admissions deadline later than the one at most U.S. schools. Unlike its American counterparts, which look at extracurricular activities and poignant personal statements when evaluating potential students, UBC focused solely, and objectively, on Eldridge’s academic performance.
Perhaps most enticing, though, was the price tag. Tuition, room and board at the University of British Columbia come to about $32,000 a year. New York’s St. Lawrence University, which Eldridge briefly considered during her college search, charges $51,000 a year.
Now a third-year student at UBC, 20-year-old Eldridge is one of a growing number of Vermont students who have attended or considered attending college in Canada — because they can realize huge savings by doing so. High school guidance counselors and college recruiters from Canada say American interest in Canadian schools is at an all-time high, sparked largely by the U.S. economic downturn. While Canadian colleges don’t have fraternities and sororities or all-consuming college athletics, they do have affordable academics.
Last year, seven universities attended a Canadian college fair at South Burlington High School ; more than 200 people showed up. This Thursday, the school is hosting the fair again. In response to demand from students and parents around the region, reps from 20 Canadian schools are signed up to attend.
Tim Wile, director of guidance at South Burlington, helped organize the inaugural fair in 2009. The impetus, he says, was the rising cost of higher education in this country. “American colleges and universities don’t seem to be slowing up much,” Wile says. “The cost of college is increasingly frightening for people.” Since Canadian colleges tend to cost 30 to 50 percent less than schools on this side of the border, Wile and numerous other guidance counselors in the Champlain Valley are encouraging students and their parents to consider Canada.
Canadian colleges are already seeing the results. At Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, applications from Vermont students are up threefold from last year, says Eddie Pomykala, a recruiter for the college. He credits the uptick to a “greater awareness” among American families that Canadian colleges are a viable option. “We’re not very different, and it isn’t un-American to apply here,” Pomykala quips.
Of the 1850 students who attend Bishop’s, 5 percent are American. Pomykala expects to see that number rise to 10 percent in the next few years. International tuition, plus room and board, amounts to $23,206 — roughly half what you’d pay to attend any private college in the U.S.
In Pomykala’s experience, asking parents to send their child to an unfamiliar Canadian school can sometimes be a tough sell. While some parents see value in an out-of-country experience, others worry that American employers won’t recognize a Canadian degree. Many question why the education is so affordable. “They think it can’t be any good if it’s half the price,” Pomykala says.
But, he tells skeptical parents, Canadian schools are publicly funded because they are meant to be affordable to everyone. The cost of attending Bishop’s for a Canadian student is $6317 per year. A Québec resident can go to Bishop’s for just $2838.
Price was part of what motivated Chuck Hafter to send his daughter Elaine to Montréal’s McGill University, which he says costs less than UVM.
But the quality — and no-nonsense style — of the education also appealed to him. “They practice grade deflation up there,” Hafter says. “You either do the work or you don’t.”
Hafter says McGill was much more challenging academically than Mt. Holyoke College, from which his older daughter graduated in 2004. One year at Holyoke now costs more than $52,000, compared with McGill’s $25,700 price tag.
Despite the hassle of obtaining a visa, transferring money and filling out international student paperwork, Elaine’s Canadian education was worth it, Hafter says. “Your child really has to be more independent,” he adds.
It’s one of the intangible benefits of going to school in another country that, in the end, is not very far away.