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Pakistan-born Hamza Khalid planned to go to Rice University in Texas for his MBA but opted for McGill in Montreal instead as anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States grew. 'It became more and more scary for me,' he says of the American climate.

In late 2016, with the offer of a major scholarship, Pakistan-born Hamza Khalid paid a non-refundable deposit of US$3,000 for his MBA at Texas-based Rice University, ranked among the top 50 programs in the world.

Then Mr. Khalid changed his mind, deterred from studying in the United States because of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric stoked by Donald Trump as a U.S. presidential candidate and then as victor. Instead, Mr. Khalid came to Canada last September for his MBA, receiving a scholarship from McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

“I thought before the election his [Trump’s] rhetoric was anti-Muslim but after the election I thought it would become different, but it became even more anti-Muslim,” says Mr. Khalid, a Muslim and an economics undergraduate from Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan’s top university. “It became more and more scary for me.”

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He is one example of the “Trump effect” chill on international student recruitment in the United States. With overseas applications to the United States down 17 per cent annually as of last September over 2016, according to the U.S. State Department, Canada is getting a closer look as an attractive place to study and, importantly, work after graduation.

The opportunity for top Canadian business schools to recruit A-list candidates is “substantial,” says higher education marketing consultant Andrew Crisp, co-founder of London-based Carrington Crisp. Increasingly, he says, foreign students are looking elsewhere for quality business programs (often cheaper than the United States) and for postgraduation work experiences typically restricted under U.S. immigration rules.

“If I [as a student] can see good opportunities in other countries beyond the U.S., that is a good reason, especially when the cost of study (both the fees of the program and the cost of living), is lower,” he says. “So the return on investment is as strong, if not better.”

Vietnam-born Long Nguyen had offers from two U.S. MBA programs but chose Rotman in Toronto after discovering Canada offered a transparent immigration process and work opportunities after graduation.

Eugene Grichko

For Vietnam-born Long Nguyen, a New York investment banker steeped in calculating ROI for others, quantitative and qualitative factors influenced his MBA decision.

In 2016, he received acceptances from two top-eight U.S. schools: the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which offered a scholarship, and the graduate business school of Columbia University in New York. But the political uncertainty in the United States gave him pause.

Working at J.P. Morgan in New York on a visa that theoretically leads to a green card (allowing recipients to live and work permanently in the United States), Mr. Nguyen says he and his employer, though highly supportive of his green card application, recognized that winning permanent immigration status would be “very challenging” given the political environment.

This month, The New York Times reported that U.S. employers are complaining of Trump administration roadblocks to legal immigration. The Times cited data from nonpartisan research by the National Foundation for American Policy showing a 41-per-cent jump in the denial rate for H-1B visas (for skilled foreign workers like Mr. Nguyen) in the last quarter of fiscal 2017.

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Once Mr. Nguyen took a closer look at Canada, he found that its immigration rules were more transparent than the United States and also permitted foreign students to work here for up to three years after graduation. Attracted to Toronto as a major financial centre, Mr. Nguyen applied to the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and received a scholarship.

Mr. Nguyen made his choice before crossing the border because he had no assurance that, even with his U.S. visa, he could to return to New York with certainty. Instead, he sought out Rotman alumni online and by phone to share their experiences of the school.

“I took a nosedive into it and did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people,” he says. “I am glad I am here.”

Jamie Young, director of recruitment and admissions at Rotman, says alumni increasingly are valuable allies in school efforts to woo top candidates.

“Our first-year [MBA] students were some of our best champions for prospective students,” he says. “These are incredible people who chose Rotman a year ago and are very interested in helping their school enrol the best class next year.”

Moreover, compared to a year ago, Mr. Young says more candidates this year made Rotman their first choice instead of waiting until later in the recruitment cycle. “Canada is at the top of their list as opposed to traditionally [looking at] the U.S. and the United Kingdom,” he says.

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Enlisting alumni to tell a school’s story is a powerful strategy, says Mr. Crisp.

“The key will be good alumni case studies to show [off] these international students who have gone on to great careers as a result of studying at Canadian schools,” he says. “It is the [telling of] the authentic story.”

Mr. Khalid, now half-way through his studies in Montreal, is happy with his decision to choose Canada for his MBA, citing the diverse makeup of his class, helpful professors and the recent completion of a summer internship that gave him résumé-relevant work experience. He is also learning French. After graduation next year, he hopes to work in Canada for several years before returning home.

By contrast, Mr. Nguyen and his wife received permanent residency here this year, shortly after his acceptance into this fall’s MBA class of 343 students. Only a few weeks into classes, he expects to put down roots here and is eyeing a career in Canada’s finance sector.

Follow Jennifer Lewington on Twitter @JenLewington or contact her at jlewington@bell.net

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