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University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman has a plan to attract more U.S. students: creating special tuition fees that are up to $10,000 less than what other international students pay. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)
University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman has a plan to attract more U.S. students: creating special tuition fees that are up to $10,000 less than what other international students pay. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)

The Americans are not coming. Should Canada's universities care? Add to ...

“In the United States, Fulbright has huge reputational value,” Mr. Hawes said. “There are very few traditional programs like ours that exist at all. There’s us, there’s [the Rhodes Scholarship], there’s [the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program].”

Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the U.S.-based Institute of International Education, says the relationship between the two countries must be renewed through a new scholarship, perhaps privately funded. He points to U.S. businessman Stephen Schwarzman, who recently pulled together $300-million for a scholarship program to send Chinese students to the U.S., as an example of the kind of initiative needed to grease the wheels between the U.S. and Canada.

“What could alter that picture positively? It’s either going to be government initiative, and probably on your side, saying ... let’s have a big government scholarship program to attract more people to Canadian universities; or a philanthropist, someone that’s made a lot of money in this trade that keeps the U.S. and Canada so closely related saying, ‘You know, having this partnership is so fundamental that I’m going to create the Rhodes Scholarship for Canadians to study in America and Americans to study in Canada.’ I think those would be game-changers.”

Opportunity cost

Absent such public or private largesse, the flow of Canadians south is reliant on good fortune and existing scholarships.

Vancouverite Andrew Gay, a fourth-year history student at Stanford, considers himself fortunate: His family was able to cover his annual tuition bill of $41,250 – nearly $55,000 including his room and board on campus – when he set his sights on the prestigious school, which is also his parents’ alma mater.

Having grown up near the University of British Columbia, which has roughly 50,000 students, Mr. Gay was attracted to Stanford’s more intimate, residential setting, with a student body less than half that size. He only applied to U.S. schools, and is an example of a student who needed no recruiting: “If you have the option to go to Stanford, and you can afford it, ... that sort of makes the choice,” he said.

He is thrilled with his experience and notes that so far, the Stanford brand “gets me job interviews pretty much anywhere I want to go.” But even he cautions other Canadian families to “take a good hard look at whether that money is going to be worth it.”

“It’s pretty amazing that you can go to school in Canada for what, $6,000 a year?” he said.

Michigan State University knows well the quality of a Canadian education, and without an Ivy League reputation has found it hard to convince students the university is unique enough to justify the move. Peter Briggs, director of the university’s Office for International Students and Scholars, says the school has not sent recruiters north in three years. The school had 160 Canadians this year, mostly in medicine, agriculture and music, as well as “a few hockey players,” but overall “we’ve struggled to recruit in Canada because we’re expensive,” he said. International students at Michigan State pay $33,600 per year – “a tough pill to get across the border.”

For Americans in Canada, the tuition equation is sometimes – though not always – a major attraction. Samuel Neuberg, who just finished his undergraduate degree at McGill with a double major in English and art history, felt he was getting a comparative bargain: McGill charges international undergraduate humanities students just under $17,000 per year, considerably less than the tab at other schools he got into like Tulane University in New Orleans, which would have cost more than $45,000 annually. The 22-year-old grew up in Connecticut and went to high school in Potomac, Md., and McGill was the lone Canadian university he applied to. Now he’s in “no rush to go back home.”

But for U.S. students looking at public univeristies in their home state, fees are often no more than $12,000 to $13,000, and less after factoring in grants and needs-based aid, which leaves Canadian international-tuition rates looking pricey – the very calculation University of Windsor is looking to adjust with its neighbour fee.

The solution: branding and money

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