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The good news is that Canada is home to so many great universities that it’s difficult to make a poor decision. That’s why choosing the school that best suits you requires going beyond rankings and reputation, and considering the unique culture and educational environment of your potential alma mater. These are the top universities in Alberta:

UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA

  • Edmonton (main), Calgary and Camrose
  • Students: 39,000 Cost: $6,600

The U of A consistently performs well on international rankings. Forestry, English and economic programs all ranked within the top 100 compared to similar programs worldwide, and faculty can brag that they have earned more 3M teaching awards than any other university in Canada. More than 1,100 U of A students study abroad in more than 40 countries each year. Nestled on the edge of Edmonton’s scenic river valley, the campus is within striking distance of restaurants, shopping and nightlife along Whyte Avenue.

In the community: The Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the U of A will welcome its first cohort in the fall of 2015. The two-year interdisciplinary study experience will provide each admitted student with $10,000 to offset the costs associated with the time students will need to invest to participate. Students will engage in undergraduate research and community service and receive mentorship while they seek to answer this question: “How will you change the world?”

Out of the classroom: First-year science student Hayley Todesco was the only Canadian student at the 2014 Google Science Fair. She earned a $25,000 scholarship for designing a contraption, built out of binder clips, a popcorn bucket and an IV bag, that cleans toxins out of the tailings left behind during oil sands production up to 14 times faster than current technology.

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ATHABASCA UNIVERSITY

  • Online (main) and Athabasca
  • Students: 41,000 Cost: $6,700 (Alberta residents) $7,800 (out-of-province)

Courses at online Athabasca University start each month and do not follow a semester system, giving students scheduling flexibility. As an open university, Athabasca has few entrance requirements, and students are admitted regardless of previous academic performance. The university offers a wide range of programs, including a bachelor of nursing, commerce and arts. Tuition costs are calculated per course and include textbooks and access to tutors and learning support.

Your typical student: Most students (70 per cent) are the first in their family to earn a university degree, and 83 per cent of Athabasca U students work while they study.

This year: Athabasca U’s interim president, Peter MacKinnon, issued a report that suggested within two years the school would be broke and unable to pay its bills. Though Mr. MacKinnon reassured students that the school would not close, he cited a massive drop in provincial funding, which once covered 80 per cent of the school’s budget and now covers about 30 per cent.

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UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY

  • Calgary
  • Students: 30,000 Cost: $6,200

In its 49th year, U of C took the top spot in Canada on the QS ranking of universities under 50 years old. The university’s goal of becoming one of Canada’s top research universities by 2016 is not far-fetched; it currently ranks eighth in Canada, as evaluated by Dutch Leiden University, for the number of articles published in leading scientific publications. Veterinary sciences and development studies ranked in the top 100, when compared to similar programs worldwide by the QS rankings.

Star student: U of C mechanical engineering student Douglas Kondro worked with two assistant professors from the university’s veterinary school to help Foghorn, a rooster who lost both his feet to frostbite. The team engineered and 3-D-printed prosthetic talons for the bird, who was later adopted by a local family.

This year: The university acknowledged a shortage of classroom and research space and set out a comprehensive plan to continue development on the campus. Plans include the expansion of kinesiology resources, a new environmental and life sciences research centre and upgrades to existing buildings to meet the needs of the growing institution.

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UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE

  • Lethbridge (main), Edmonton and Calgary
  • Students: 8,100 Cost: $6,000

The University of Lethbridge was founded in 1967 to offer a liberal education designed to produce informed and engaged citizens. That tradition continues today with the President’s Grant for International Community Engagement, which each year provides up to four students with $5,000 to spend several months working in a developing country. Harsh winters and prairie landscapes define the outdoor experience in Southern Alberta, and the town itself lacks action, but students give the campus recreation facilities a high grade.

In the classroom: Management students have access to $100,000 to invest in financial markets. They use the same tools and technology available to investment professionals to experience managing a real-life investment portfolio.

Out of the classroom: One-quarter of undergraduate students say they have worked with faculty on a research project by their fourth year, a figure similar to larger, more research-focused universities, such as the U of A.

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MacEWAN UNIVERSITY

  • Edmonton
  • Students: 16,000 Cost: $5,900

MacEwan University’s main campus is in the heart of downtown Edmonton, while its fine arts and communications programs are located in the city’s west side. Construction is underway on a new building that will consolidate operations in the urban core. The university has worked to keep class sizes small as it grows. MacEwan is a teaching-focused university, meaning there are few research opportunities. As it continues to transition from a college to a university, the school is upgrading its previously subpar wireless and other technologies.

In the classroom: Business students in Leo Wong’s class work in groups to develop a social venture from a measly $5. They get to learn about managing a sustainable business, and at the end of the course, they are given the option to give some or all of the funds – which routinely reach upward of $40,000 a class – to a charity of their choice.

Students say: Teachers are top-notch. “Almost all of the professors are genuinely involved in your education. They don’t just talk at you, they talk with you,” says second-year arts and cultural management student Kimberly Wilson.

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MOUNT ROYAL UNIVERSITY

  • Calgary
  • Students: 11,800 Cost: $6,400

As a former college, MRU maintains a dedication to hands-on and experiential learning opportunities. The university gets glowing feedback from students who say small class sizes and engaged professors make it a great place to study. The numbers reflect that popularity: 88 per cent of students who are offered a space at MRU accept it, a rate well above average compared to other universities. Students in any discipline can take a minor in social innovation and non-profit studies. The school’s bachelor of midwifery is its most competitive program, with an average entrance grade of 89 per cent. With an overall average entrance GPA of 77, the university remains relatively accessible.

This year: A widely reported major budget shortfall caused MRU to offer retirement packages to faculty and propose a hike in tuition. However, the new provincial government restored funding at the 11th hour and froze 2016 tuition rates and student fees at the September 2014 level.

Star student: Derek Rucki, a business administration student and former top 10 junior Canadian golfer, was recently named Canada’s top student entrepreneur by Toronto’s Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He developed a Bluetooth-enabled wristwatch that measures precise yardage for golfers on 30,000 golf courses worldwide.

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With Erin Millar, Nelly Bouevitch and Colleen Kimmett

Which university is right for you?

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