Carson Ross had a financial dilemma on her hands. When the New Yorker weighed her college options back in 2009, she could have picked destinations like Tufts in Boston or Washington University in St. Louis, and racked up what she estimated would be over $40,000 a year in tuition and fees. Or she could take a more dramatic step, and head north to Canada for her education. And that's exactly what she did.
"It's less than half of what I'd be paying at most top American schools," says Ross, now 21, who picked Montreal's McGill University and is majoring in international development studies. "It's definitely a load off my mind, that I'm not going to be bankrupting my parents or owing my soul to the banks for the rest of my life."
More students these days are thinking like Ross. Almost 10,000 American students are heading to Canada for higher education every year for the past five years, according to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, up from just 2,300 15 years ago.
That's the case even though the exchange rate is now close to par. A decade ago, the Canadian dollar had sunk to barely more than 60 cents U.S., making cross-border education a screaming bargain. These days when private four-year colleges in the United States cost an average of $28,500 a year in tuition and fees, according to the College Board – and many much more than that – it still can make sense for U.S. students to look across the border.
Says Katherine Cohen, CEO of Manhattan-based educational consultants IvyWise: "It can be easier to get in, and you also get great value. International students at McGill pay $17,000 a year for a BA, which is nothing compared to the top U.S. schools, where you might pay three times that amount."
Of course, such a decision about one's educational future isn't to be taken lightly. It is, after all, a foreign country, so moving abroad comes with caveats. There will be travel expenses involved, but not markedly different than what you would expect if you were attending an out-of-state American college. A study visa won't be hard to procure, and with that in hand you'll be able to work on-campus (and off-campus too, as long as you apply for a special permit).
Make sure your choice will still allow you to benefit from U.S. aid programs, advises Mark Kantrowitz, author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship and publisher. Research federal school codes; as long as your destination is on the list, there should be no barriers to receiving scholarships or loans, he says.
One bonus: It's a little easier to secure a spot than at elite American colleges. Admissions tend to be more numbers-based, says Cohen, weighting grades and SAT scores higher than entrance essays (and with no specifically Canadian tests that you need to take in addition).
As for smoothing the process to get into graduate schools, American institutions are very familiar with the prominent Canadian undergrad schools, so they won't be put off by a foreign degree. Katherine Stimson, for instance, did her undergraduate degree at Toronto's York University in 2004, which is priced at around $12,000 a year and her graduate degree at the University of Miami in 2011. "It came down to costs," she says. "I went to York, worked on campus and did summer coursework, and graduated debt-free a year early."
Here's how the 3 most popular destinations for American students stack up:
Institution: McGill University
Location: Montreal, Quebec
Prominent programs: Engineering, Commerce, International Development
Overview: Came in 17th in the QS World University Rankings, the top Canadian institution. Average temperatures in January and February are below 20 degrees, so come prepared. The predominantly French city can be a plus for those who like the European feel, or a minus for non-speakers who find it a challenging environment.
Institution: University of British Columbia
Location: Vancouver, B.C.
Prominent programs: Psychology, Commerce, International Relations
Overview: Ranks as the 51st-best university in the world, third in Canada. The former Winter Olympics locale features a high quality of life (it's among the most liveable cities in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit) but comes with a relatively high cost of living. Price-wise it offers a mid-point between more affordable McGill, and the pricier University of Toronto.
Institution: University of Toronto
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Prominent programs: Management, Law, Engineering
Overview: Ranks 23rd among the best universities in the world. Boasts a broad menu of degrees, big-city amenities, and is home to 8,000 international students. As Steve Martin once joked of Toronto in a "30 Rock" episode, "It's like New York, but without all the stuff." And what about that dreaded Canadian weather? "Well, you know, it's cold," says IvyWise's Cohen. "You gotta be prepared. If you're coming from Miami, it might be a big shock to the system."