Should Canadians Go to U.S. Universities?

04/17/2013 12:26 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT
gothic porch harvard yard

The e-mails, long and short, and the envelopes, thick and thin, have arrived, bearing tidings -- glad or sad.

Yes, it is once again university acceptance season. And for a growing number of Canadian grade 12 students, the letters and e-mails include offers of admission from U.S. colleges and universities in addition to the usual array of Canadian schools.

But does it actually make any sense for a Canadian to go to a U.S. university, given the quality and relative affordability of our own institutions? When I was the university advisor for Ontario's largest soccer club, one which routinely sent a half dozen or so male and female players south of the border, I got asked that question a lot.

And my answer was always the same -- a resounding "it depends".

My starting bias is that Canadian universities are tough to beat. Compared to the U.S., academic standards are reasonably uniform and high, while tuition and fees, in contrast to the States, are laughably low (protesting students not withstanding).

One thing many people fail to understand is that the quality of U.S. institutions of higher education is all over the map, ranging from the sublime (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech, etc.) to the ridiculous (Northwest North Dakota State, Southeast South Carolina, Coastal Bible College, etc). OK, so I made those last two up, not wishing to be sued, but you get my drift.

So who should consider heading south of the border?

I think there are four categories where the answer might be yes:

1. Elite athletes. In certain sports, including track and field, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, football, soccer, golf, tennis and volleyball, Division I NCAA competition and resources are unrivaled.

Not only do many schools have large budgets, but most also operate in a more amenable climate (especially relevant for sports like golf, tennis and baseball). And if a student aspires to be a professional hockey player, schools like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Boston College, Cornell and Yale (yes, Yale -- they just won the national championship) are great destinations.

The number of NHL-worthy goalies alone who have successfully followed this route, from Ken Dryden and Curtis Joseph, to Brian Elliott and Marty Turco, bears testament to this. British Columbia's Steve Nash went to Santa Clara for basketball; Ontario's Mike Weir to Brigham Young for golf -- you get the point.

And while the Ivy League schools -- the Harvards and Yales -- don't officially have athletic scholarships, if you have strong SAT scores and a wicked slap-shot, they'll find a way.

2. Brand-conscious elite students (or more accurately, students with brand-conscious parents). No question about it, you get people's attention when you drop "the H-bomb" (as people characterize the mere mention of Harvard in conversation). Yale, Princeton, Columbia will also do the trick, as will the mention of the so-called public Ivies like UC-Berkeley, UCLA and Michigan.

You might well be able to get just as good an education at McGill, Queen's, Western or UBC, but if you're into prestige (and measurably greater lifetime earnings potential), it is hard to walk away from an acceptance letter from these schools. And the Ivies, at least, include the happy news that they will "meet demonstrated need", meaning that if you don't have the bucks, they do.

Keep in mind that Stanford raised $1 billion in 2012 alone while Harvard got alumni and other folks to cough up $650 million. That's a lot of pencils.

And what is a degree from Harvard worth over a lifetime? In 2009 a newly-minted Harvard grad received an average starting salary of $63,400 vs. the average a mid-career US male pulling in $45,113. Put a different way, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby estimates that a graduate of an elite school will earn back the difference in tuition between a top brand-name US school and a third-tier institution more than 30 times in the course of a career. That's a lot of Chateauneuf de Pape.

3. Those seeking very specific academic programs. Let's face it, while you might be able to get a degree in U.S. Colonial History in Canada, there a lot of good reasons to head off to the University of Virginia or Princeton to pursue those studies. My daughter chose UCLA based on its strength in a very esoteric realm of anthropology (or so she claims; sunshine may have also been a factor). Canadians go to Cornell University for its School of Hotel Administration or to Embry-Riddle University for certain types of aviation studies. Sometimes you just have to go to where the subject is being taught.

4. Those Seeking Ivy Quality in Tiny Setting. Then there are the Liberal Arts Colleges, which typically only focus on undergraduate instruction, have low student/faculty ratio, small class sizes and a tiny total student body (often less than 3,000). These are America's hidden educational gems.

Schools like Carleton College in Minnesota, Pomona College in California, Williams and Amherst Colleges in Massachusetts and Middlebury College in Vermont have, on a per student basis, all of the resources of an Ivy League school, but in a much more intimate setting.

There are some excellent Canadian schools that follow this model, like Acadia and Mount Allison, but it is difficult for them to fully match their US counterparts. To use one example, 50 per cent of all Carleton College graduates eventually go on to earn a PhD or professional designation (MD, JD, MBA etc). Even only a handful of the Ivies can match that.

The bottom line: Unless they are a budding NHL, NBA or WPGA star, or have very strong grades and SAT scores (and/or more money than they know what to do with), or are studying the life-cycle of the Louisiana purple moth, I urge students (and their parents) to resist the lure of undergraduate education south of the border. I also tell them they should be grateful that we have so many fine institutions here in Canada at a (relatively) reasonable price.

I also urge my American friends to seriously consider sending their children north of the border (some already do, to schools like U of T, McGill, Dalhousie and UBC). Even paying international student rates, Canadian schools are great value for money.

The author went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison; his spouse to the University of Toronto. Their attempts to persuade their two children to go to either school ended in complete failure.

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