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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 British Columbia:

UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Vancouver (main) and Kelowna
  • Students: 59,200 Cost: $6,000

Despite being a big campus with many professors focused on research, UBC maintains a hands-on learning environment. More than half of senior students report participating in an internship, co-op placement, field experience or other professional placement before graduation. But getting in is a challenge. With significantly higher average entrance grades in the arts and sciences than, for instance, SFU and UVic, UBC has the lowest admittance rate in the province.

First impressions: Like many students, when Olivia Law arrived on campus three years ago to start her English degree, she was intimidated by its size. “It’s still huge and full of construction, but I feel like now I know my way around. It feels like I’ve been here forever, and now I know the best coffee places, the cheapest good sushi and the best study spots.”

In the community: Each year, UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) gives more than 5,000 students a chance to get involved with local organizations for credit or by volunteering. Fourthyear computer sciences student Kevin Tanyag developed an app that maps shelters, clinics, food programs and other services in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside using a grant he received from the CCEL.

“It changed the way I think about the impact that technology can have on the community,” says Mr. Tanyag, who hoped to work for Microsoft or Google after graduation, but is now considering how his expertise can have a positive impact elsewhere.

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CAPILANO UNIVERSITY

  • North Vancouver (main), Sechelt
  • Students: 7,300 Cost: $4,300

Cap U backs into a stunning old-growth forest in North Vancouver, an inspiring setting for students in the well-known music therapy and jazz programs. Ninety-five per cent of students surveyed in the latest graduate outcome survey said the quality of instruction was good or very good. The former college became a teaching-focused university in 2008, and echoes of Cap U’s college days remain with many certificate and diploma programs still on offer. More than half of all students are enrolled in the business administration degree, which had more than 1,500 applicants last year, above average for a medium-sized university.

Budget issues: Cap U faced significant budget shortfalls in 2013 and 2014, the first of which saw non-degree granting arts and science programs cut, including computer science, geology and kinesiology. This spring, a teachers’ strike meant classes were cancelled for a month and exams were postponed, but the university and faculty reached an agreement in June.

Star student: Bachelor of business administration student Mike Victor is a two-time recipient of the Ch’nook Scholarship, which was established in 2007 to recognize the achievements of aboriginal business students in B.C. who make contributions to their schools and communities. Mr. Victor has been actively involved in aboriginal initiatives on campus, including providing input on the university’s Kéxwusm-áyakn (First Nations) Student Centre programming.

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EMILY CARR UNIVERSITY OF ART + DESIGN

  • Vancouver
  • Students: 2,000 Cost: $5,000

This year, the Emily Carr University of Art + Design made its debut on the QS World University Rankings, which places the school among the top art and design universities in the world. The school’s main campus is in the middle of Vancouver’s industrial-chic Granville Island, surrounded by merchants, markets and yoga studios. ECUAD has forged many partnerships, including with the David Suzuki Foundation, TED Talks, car2go and TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), to give students the opportunity to apply art and design thinking to real-word problems and situations.

Outside of the classroom: Led by the Health Design Lab and professor Hélène Day Fraser, students designed apps, toys and tools to help elementary and high-school students with learning difficulties. Projects included a “fidget” tool for students who have trouble focusing and a musical instrument that encourages collaboration.

This year: Construction of the university’s new campus on Vancouver’s False Creek Flats began in April and is slated for completion in 2017. The campus was designed to encourage collaboration and interaction through bright, open spaces and common areas. The new campus will be a short walk from rapid transit, and the industrial neighbourhood has already attracted new breweries, art galleries and restaurants.

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UNIVERSITY OF THE FRASER VALLEY

  • Abbotsford (main), Chilliwack, Mission and Hope
  • Students: 8,500 Cost: $5,200

UFV offers something for just about everybody. The school’s flexible admission policy means some programs take into account more than just academic background or performance when making decisions about admittance, including life or work experience. Students say the commuter campus lacks school spirit, but UFV’s mandate is to serve the educational needs of the Fraser Valley and nearly 90 per cent of students hail from the surrounding region. Students praised the quality of instruction and interaction with teachers in a national student survey. Classes are capped at 36 students, but students complain about waitlists to get into courses.

In the community: A higher percentage of first-year students reported participating in an internship or co-op program than at any other B.C. university. For instance, Cherie Enns’ urban planning students designed innovative urbanization proposals to revive an historic ornamental garden site that closed down several years ago. Students envisioned walkable, vibrant multiuse communities and presented their ideas to the local planning director.

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KWANTLEN POLYTECHNIC UNIVERSITY

  • Surrey (main), Richmond, Langley and Cloverdale
  • Students: 15,000 Cost: $5,400

This college-turned-university has four regional campuses and offers a variety of flexible study options for a range of bachelor’s degrees. KPU offers many bridging programs, which allow students to complete a certificate or a diploma and continue on to a degree. The teaching-focused school caps class sizes at 35, making it easy to get to know the instructors, which is impressive for such a large institution. Students say the commuter-style campus lacks community and culture. Despite priding itself on a vocational and applied approach to learning, very few programs outside of the business school have co-op study options.

This year: Current students gave back in a big way to future KPU students. For instance, Kwantlen’s student-owned, not-for-profit Polytechnic Ink Publishing Society (PIPS) donated $100,000 toward annual scholarships for journalism and creative writing students.

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UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Prince George (main), Peace River-Liard, Terrace, Prince Rupert, Quesnel
  • Students: 3,300 Cost: $5,500

UNBC opened its doors in 1990, two years after 16,000 Northern B.C. residents campaigned for the creation of their own university. Co-op placements are limited, but research opportunities for undergraduates are numerous compared to other small universities. UNBC students reported a 93-per-cent employment rate two years after graduation, higher than UBC and the University of Victoria. Eighty per cent of 2012 graduates in the work force surveyed two years after graduation say their job is related to their degree, higher than most B.C. universities.

In the community: Students in the social work and business programs collaborated to develop the Northern Family Support Program, which provides resources to families and individuals in crisis who may not qualify for traditional social services. The social venture is funded by local businesses and donors.

Beyond the classroom: UNBC offers experiential learning courses that connect students with community groups. In one recent course, students built a traditional pit house in partnership with a local First Nation; in another, they learned about biodiversity in the Skeena River at an estuary research centre.

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QUEST UNIVERSITY

  • Squamish
  • Students: 650 Cost: $31,200

The student experience at the private Quest University is unique in Canada and is profiled here to highlight alternative learning models. For the first two years, students take a common set of interdisciplinary courses that build critical thinking skills. In the last two years, students design their learning experience around a personalized question. For example: “What is dark matter?” or “What conditions optimize a sense of belonging?” The mountain views and small class sizes offered by the private university don’t come cheap, but the university handed out $10.2-million in merit- and needs-based scholarships to its 650 students in 2014. Despite being a fairly new university granting only a bachelor in arts and science, Quest grads have landed jobs at Nike, Parks Canada and Yale University’s Singapore campus, while others have gone on to postgraduate studies at Ivy League schools.

In the community: All students are required to spend one to four months off campus immersed in experiential learning. The flexibility of the school’s block program (students take just one class at a time each month) is attractive to students who want to travel, work or train, like freestyle skiers Keltie Hansen and Rosalind Groenewoud, who represented Canada at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Students say: Faculty are extremely supportive. “They are our friends and colleagues, as well as mentors, which has deepened the learning experience for me,” says third-year Questy, Cello Lukey.

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ROYAL ROADS UNIVERSITY

  • Victoria
  • Students: 2,000 (graduate) and 1,100 (undergraduate) Cost: $9,200

Royal Roads University offers the final two years (60 credits) of study for undergraduate programs, a variety of master’s programs and a doctorate of social sciences. Most programs start with an intense on-campus learning experience, followed by distance and online courses and an internship that is integrated into the core curriculum.

In a 2014 survey of recent graduates, 98 per cent said the quality of instruction at RRU was good or very good. The beautiful campus comes complete with a castle and a Japanese garden, but residences are limited and not available for undergraduate students.

Your typical student: Is studying for his or her master’s degree and is between 24 and 35 years old. Two years after graduation, students report an average annual salary of $60,000 (compared with UBC grads, who earn $53,400, or SFU grads, who earn $49,600, for example).

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SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY

  • Burnaby (main), Vancouver and Surrey
  • Students: 30,000 Cost: $6,200

Each year, about 2,700 students participate in SFU’s massive co-op program, which places students with 1,900 organizations locally, nationally and globally. The flexible trimester system means the school operates year-round, and there is no shortage of available courses in the summer months. SFU has the highest average entrance GPA in B.C. at 88.4 per cent, but continues to perform below average in national student surveys regarding overall educational experience. A science degree from SFU carries some weight; graduates report a 97.8 per cent employment rate two years after graduation.

In the community: RADIUS, a social innovation lab and venture incubator, provides financial support and mentorship to SFU students. It seeded Artemis Technologies, a social venture made up of SFU business and engineering students, which is developing software that uses aerial images of crops to detect diseases and increase growing efficiencies.

On campus: SFU gets a bad reputation for being isolated on top of Burnaby Mountain, and the concrete architecture is easy to bash. But students say the aesthetic grows on them, and the complex interconnected buildings are fun to explore. UniverCity is SFU’s mixed-use residence and commercial area that includes a large grocery store, coffee shops, retail stores and even an elementary school.

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THOMPSON RIVERS UNIVERSITY

  • Kamloops (main) and Williams Lake
  • Students: 10,000 Cost: $5,500

TRU is an open university, which means admission is available to anyone, regardless of their previous academic performance. With the highest acceptance rate in B.C. (87 per cent of applicants are admitted), the school honours its commitment to openness and offers a wide range of programs, from trades to pharmacy, law and interdisciplinary studies. TRU is in the process of transforming its campus into a village with restaurants, shopping and more residences, which will give students access to more amenities than the big box shopping centres and fast-food joints that neighbour the campus.

In the classroom: Teaching strategies across faculties incorporate the school’s dedication to student-driven learning and interdisciplinary approaches. Medieval studies students worked with trades instructors to build catapults and other contraptions of the Middle Ages.

Outside of the classroom: Students can apply to earn credits and certifications for extracurricular experiences through TRU’s co-curricular record. Hailee-Jean Lindgren, a fourth-year bachelor of arts student, received credit for a photography course and learned valuable leadership skills. “The Articulating Your Learning workshop specifically helped me figure out how to apply what I’d learned in the other workshop to my résumé,” says Ms. Lindgren.

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VANCOUVER ISLAND UNIVERSITY

  • Nanaimo (main), Duncan, Parksville and Powell River
  • Students: 14,000 Cost: $4,800

VIU’s bachelor’s and master’s degree offerings have continued to grow each year. To meet the demand for more research space, a new health and science centre is slated for construction beginning next year. Students gave interactions with their professors the second-highest rating in B.C. in a national student survey. VIU has a specific mandate to support aboriginal students (12 per cent of its student body identify as aboriginal) and funds nine elder positions, an aboriginal student transition adviser and an aboriginal projects co-ordinator.

In the community: Brother-and-sister team Jaden Bourque and Sharae Antley partnered with their mother, Alana Bourque (who has been auditing classes alongside them while they work toward degrees in anthropology), to collect non-perishable food for the Ladysmith soup kitchen as an assignment for their anthropology of homelessness class.

Students love Vancouver Island University's setting and small classes.

Students say: VIU is a beautiful place to study, and small class sizes make all the difference. “I like that the campus is small enough that you don’t feel like a number, but you have some anonymity. Despite the infamous stairs (there are many), the campus is gorgeous, and the view of the ocean never gets old,” says fourth-year graphic design student Jessica Smith.

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UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA

  • Victoria
  • Students: 21,000 Cost: $5,900

Just like its hometown, UVIC is not too big and not too small. The school is known for its world-class marine science centre and its large co-op program, which offers students opportunities to gain hands-on-experience. Each year more than 100 undergraduate students are awarded the opportunity to explore a question in their field through the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards.

Student star: Biochemistry student Dylan Collins is one of seven Rhodes Scholars to hail from UVIC. The prestigious scholarship worth $100,000 will cover all expenses while he studies at the University of Oxford in London, England. In his time at UVIC, he worked in public health in Kenya, at home with BC Centre for Disease Control and served on the board for AIDS Vancouver Island.

In the community: Students can take a minor in social justice studies while majoring in another field. The program engages with community groups to give students the opportunity to apply their research and knowledge to real-world social issues.

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With Erin Millar, Nelly Bouevitch and Colleen Kimmett

Which university is right for you?

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