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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 ...

From Alan Wildeman’s office window, the Ambassador Bridge to the United States is “about a driver and two 3-woods away” – a few hundred yards, in golf parlance. So it is a source of frustration to the University of Windsor president that of 2,000 international students his university hosted this year from all corners of the world, only 82 came from south of the border.

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Betting that cost is the main barrier, the University of Windsor is creating a “U.S. neighbour fee” that will charge undergraduates from the United States $10,000 per year – up to $10,000 less than what international students currently pay. The hope is that the university will nab some of the students planning to attend nearby schools such as Michigan University or Detroit’s Wayne State University.

“We’ve only got 82 from the U.S., and you’d think, my gosh, we’re living in the midst of close to six million [Americans],” Dr. Wildeman said. “We are closer to Wayne State than [Toronto’s York University] is to the University of Toronto.”

While Canada’s international-student population has exploded to 265,377 students at all education levels, student traffic between Canada and the U.S. – in both directions – levelled off years ago. The 76-per-cent spike in foreign students since 2002 has been built by successfully appealing to countries like China and India, setting Canada up to benefit over the coming decades from having university graduates in those economic powerhouses who are familiar with and even fond of Canada.

Yet there is also growing recognition that Canada neglects its closest educational neighbours at its peril. Canada remains the U.S.’s primary economic partner, with rising trade totals reaching nearly $617-billion last year. Businesses in both countries say they still value graduates with roots and personal networks on both sides of the border. Nevertheless, the steady stream of students back and forth is beginning to look like a trickle in the Niagara Falls of international exchanges.

“The smaller the world gets, the more important [exchange] is,” said Michael Hawes, CEO of Fulbright Canada, which administers prestigious scholarships to exchange students with the U.S. “As economic interdependence grows, as the movement of people more generally becomes greater, real experiences, I think, are even more critical.”

The status quo

At first glance, the numbers of Canadian and U.S. students crossing the border to study appear steady and unremarkable, which is precisely what makes them noteworthy.

As of Dec. 1, 2012, there were 12,128 U.S. students studying in Canada at all levels of education – 643 fewer than in 2002, or a 5-per-cent drop, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Of the 2012 total, 9,305 were at universities, and just 1,000 at colleges. At the same time, 26,821 Canadians travelled to study at U.S. universities in 2012, which is only 307 more than in 2002, or a 1-per-cent bump.

Over the same decade, the number of Chinese students coming to Canada to study jumped from 29,738 to nearly 80,000, while enrolments from India climbed from just 3,830 to nearly 29,000, or rises of 169 per cent and 657 per cent respectively.

Canadians considering U.S. education often have eyes mostly for the Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, which helped mould prominent Canadians such as Mark Carney, Jim Balsillie and Ken Dryden. The numbers of Canadians enrolled in the Ivy League have held steady despite the boom in applications from the brigade of so-called BRIC countries – growing economic powerhouses Brazil, Russia, India and China – which are sending greater numbers of students to these elite schools each year.

In a decade of massive expansion of student participation and mobility in higher education, the movement of students within North America stayed flat, suggesting that both countries’ recruiting strategies have grown stale.

The special relationship

A Fulbright scholarship is still considered one of the most prestigious and highly sought-after honours by students on both sides of the border. The Fulbrights were set up to send students and professors on exchanges specifically between Canada and the U.S., funded largely by the U.S. State Department to engage the two countries intellectually and raise the profile of their universities. And while the Canadian Fulbright arm has expanded, the scholarships’ main U.S. funding source has stayed constant.

“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

It’s not that U.S. students or colleagues are in any way negative about Canadian opportunities,” Mr. Hawes of Fulbright Canada said. “They just don’t know about them.”

One university that is on the Americans’ radar is McGill, which is the destination for almost a quarter of all U.S. students. That interest “doesn’t just happen – it is something that we work at,” said Kathleen Massey, registrar and executive director of enrolment services at McGill University. Like most Canadian schools, McGill’s U.S. recruiting efforts are concentrated in a few regions: New York, New England, California and other parts of the West Coast, which are also the prime destinations for Canadians heading south for school.

“With alumni in the United States, these are some of the people who look to sending their children back to McGill, and I think that’s a factor,” Ms. Massey said. “We can’t underestimate reputation for any university in Canada.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Calgary, which has consistently attracted 100 to 110 U.S. students each year, the institution is now trying to double its own international enrolment by 2016, with the U.S. as one of five priority sources. The school is setting up three new alumni chapters in Silicon Valley, New York and Houston to spread the word, and creating a new regional council with representatives from U.S. businesses, consulates and government.

“I think we are [now] much more aggresive in terms of getting those students and other things moving faster in the U.S.,” said Janaka Ruwanpura, University of Calgary’s new vice-provost, international. The university hopes to land some of the scholarship students being funded to come to Canada, but also to build on shared economic interests like energy. “Certainly we are going to promote our own strength areas,” he said.

The sense of shared connections born of educational exchanges reaches beyond particular industries, however. Manny Sousa, senior vice-president of global human resources at the information management firm Open Text, hopes the country’s universities will start making an extra effort. His is a global company headquartered in Waterloo, which does its primary business in Canada and the U.S., and it is hungry for graduates like Mr. Gay, who can tap valuable networks they built while studying abroad.

“If you’ve got a student who’s gone to school in the U.S. and all of a sudden they’re working for us in Canada and they’re calling on U.S. clients and they find out you’re an alum from the same school ... there’s an automatic connection that goes along with that,” he said. “All those things, they help as glue in the relationship.”

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Number of international students studying in Canada in 2012: 265,377

Number in 2002: 150,297

Increase of 76 per cent

 

Number of U.S. students studying in Canada in 2012: 12,128

Number in 2002: 12,771

Decrease of 5 per cent

 

Number of Canadians studying at U.S. universities and colleges in 2012: 26,821

Number in 2002: 26,514

Increase of 1 per cent

 

Annual tuition cost for an international student studying for a BA and a BSc, respectively, at McGill University in Montreal: $16,872.46, $30,691.26

Annual tuition cost (in U.S. dollars) for an international student at Michigan State University: $33,632

At Stanford University: $41,250

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