By Dave Carpenter, AP Personal Finance Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — "Why Canada?"
People keep posing that question to Nancy Berkowitz, and no doubt to most other parents who send their children north of the border to college.
The answer: Good schools, great tuition bargains and a nearby international experience.
"There is a lot of prejudice in the U.S. toward foreign schools," says Berkowitz, of Sylmar, Calif., whose daughter Jocelyn started as a freshman at the University of Alberta this fall. "I tell them, 'Why not Canada?'"
At a time when tuition is getting harder to afford, going to college in Canada is an appealing option for American students and their parents who pay the bills.
Nearly 10,000 undergraduates and graduate students currently attend Canada's 94 universities — up sharply from 6,000 five years ago and fewer than 3,000 barely a decade ago.
One reason is stepped-up recruiting by Canadian schools, including college fairs held in select U.S. cities. The recession, coupled with often-exorbitant tuition rates, has clearly warmed Americans to the pitch.
"It makes sense for parents and students to cast a wide net," says Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. "And for some teenagers, Canada might offer a wonderful opportunity."
It has for Jocelyn Berkowitz. At a college fair last year, the 17-year-old was looking for an affordable school with a top-notch art history program — but she wanted to get out of California. Berkowitz walked up to a University of Alberta table and saw it seemed to have everything she wanted.
She had never been to Canada but ended up choosing the school in Edmonton, Alberta, sight unseen, thanks in no small part to its competitive cost. Money was a key factor for her parents — Nancy, an administrative assistant at a law library, and Benett, a high school English teacher — who still carry a hefty debt from putting Jocelyn's sister Andrea through college.
Alberta's total costs of $21,500 (U.S.) for tuition, room and board and fees exceed the $18,000 bill Jocelyn would have faced at Humboldt State University, her backup school. But they're significantly less than at the two other schools she considered: Penn State, where she would have paid $28,600, and the University of Puget Sound, where her total costs, even with a scholarship, would have been about $36,000.
Despite some initial culture shock, she says she's very happy with her decision. "I love all of my classes, my teachers, my peers."
Canadian universities aren't a perfect fit for everyone. The weather, dearth of fraternities and sororities and absence of big-time college football and basketball may stop some American teens cold.
Some potential financial snags lurk, too, if you can't foot the entire bill. Scholarships are relatively small — a few thousand dollars at most — and based on academics only. State aid and Pell grants don't transfer to Canada. Students can't get loans through Canadian universities like they can with U.S. schools. And getting work on the side to help defray the costs is possible but not quite as easy to line up.
Overall, though, there are a number of compelling reasons to consider college in Canada:
Funded mostly by the federal and provincial governments, Canadian universities are a bargain by almost any standard. Non-Canadians typically pay three or four times the domestic rate, but most schools still cost less than out-of-state tuition for public schools in the United States.
An American student can get a year's tuition at virtually any Canadian university for less than $20,000 and considerably less at some, including less tahn $12,000 at top-rated smaller schools such as Acadia and Mount Allison.
On price alone, it's hard to beat Brandon University, a liberal arts school of about 3,000 students located an hour north of the border. The university, which boasts a strong music program, charges international students just 5,700 to 6,300 Canadian dollars ($5,400-$6,000) for tuition depending on the program, and roughly the same for room and board.
Students from neighboring Minnesota get to pay Canadians' tuition rate at Brandon under a special agreement, cutting the tuition bill in half. And any international student who maintains at least a 3.0 (B) grade point average gets up to 3,000 Canadian dollars knocked off the bill for the following year.
A favorable exchange rate gives American students an additional boost. The Canadian dollar is worth about 95 cents, after falling as low as 79 cents in March.
That edge can't be counted on when tallying up the total cost of an education. The "loonie" has fluctuated between 77 cents and $1.10 the past five years. But the exchange rate's unpredictability shouldn't undermine the appeal.
"Where Canadian schools make a difference financially for Americans is with middle-income families," says David Zutautas, a recruiting director for the University of Toronto. "Wealthy families can afford any U.S. or Canadian school, and low-income ones can take advantage of Pell grants in the U.S."
Canadian universities generally are considered to be on a par with their American counterparts.
McGill University in Montreal, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, among others, rank high on lists of the world's best universities. That makes them a great option for high-aiming U.S. students who either can't afford or can't get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.
Canadian schools' degrees carry weight with U.S. graduate schools and with U.S. corporations, according to the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2010.
Americans attending Canadian schools get more of an international education without severe cultural challenges.
Canadian universities are generally located in cities, giving students a good dose of a different culture even though most are within 100 miles of the U.S. border. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver all are cosmopolitan, world-class cities.
While Canada is officially bilingual, English dominates in every province but francophone-majority Quebec. And even in Montreal, Quebec's largest city, Americans can get by without French. On campus, language should only be an issue if a student opts for a French course of study.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Many American students in Canada are from northern states and have at least a passing acquaintance with the country. Now Canadian recruiters are trying to spread the word to others too.
Canadian campuses and the cities they're located in are considered safe.
They may not match U.S. universities for the rah-rah sports experience, or the plush facilities at the richest schools. But they offer much of what their large counterparts to the south do outside the classroom, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
That includes everything from concert halls, art galleries and sports facilities to student-run radio stations, newspapers and business ventures. And wired residences and classrooms are now commonplace.
Alex Leipziger, 25, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 2007, said the combination of educational quality and affordability led him to Canada.
"I got into some very good schools, but considering they cost $40,000 a year it seemed silly to pay four times as much for something of equal quality," says Leipziger, who now works for the Canadian Embassy in Washington. "And as for the city, Toronto was a great place to go to school. It was vibrant, fun, multicultural and safe."
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