Katia Ternopolska was sitting with her father in a theatre seminar room at the University of Toronto in the spring, at an event to recruit more U.S. students.
Part of her didn't relish the idea of leaving home in Philadelphia, a city with enough good universities of its own. Yet her interest is in commerce and international relations, so Toronto's multinational diversity is a definite draw, she says.
Universities this year regularly have been asked whether the current political climate in the United States is creating more interest in Canadian schools and bumping up foreign applications.
The answer is yes, but it is a process that started well before the current U.S. president.
For Ms. Ternopolska, the political turbulence in the United States did not make her want to leave home. "If anything, it makes me inclined to want to stay in America. I don't want to abandon my country right now, when it needs support, especially for minorities," she says. "Despite that, I feel that getting a degree in Canada will enable me to help them."
The University of Toronto has seen a strong spike in applications from foreign students heading into the 2017-18 academic year. By early spring, applications from prospective U.S. undergraduate students coming to U of T were up about 80 per cent. From India, they were up 55 to 60 per cent compared with last year. International students make up about 20 per cent of the university's student population.
"There's a real surge in interest from around the world," says Ted Sargent, vicepresident, international, at the University of Toronto. In addition, more of those top candidates are accepting offers to attend and are enrolling, he says. "So their interest in us is very genuine. They're not just scattering applications around." This seems only partly due to the United States falling out of favour for some students and more a result of Canadian university recruitment.
"About a year ago, we decided to increase our efforts in the U.S., specifically. We wanted to diversify our admission of international students," says Richard Levin, the University of Toronto's registrar. "We have students from over 140 countries, but we don't get as many American students as we think we should."
The university has since added two recruiters and an admissions person concentrating specifically on prospective U.S. students, as well as holding get-to-know-you events in major American cities, including Washington, D.C., suburb Bethesda, Md., New York and Boston.
The recruiting push seems to be paying off. "Previously, we were seeing application increases [from the U.S.] of 20 or 30 per cent, but this year there's clearly a change in the curve," Mr. Levin says.
Increases of 20 per cent are more in line with what various other Canadian universities typically see. Montreal's McGill University, for instance, saw a 21-per-cent increase of prospective U.S. undergraduate students over last year, and last year saw a 13-per-cent increase over the previous year.
Overseas applications at McGill are about the same, with a 22-per-cent jump. "That has been climbing over the years, but this is a substantial increase this year," says the university's registrar Kathleen Massey.
McGill's proportion of international students is relatively high at about 27 per cent.
"Because there was an increase last year, I think it's more than political changes. I would say that there are political changes happening worldwide that may make Canada – not just McGill, but Canada – very interesting as an alternate choice," she says.
"It's recognized that we have top-quality educational institutions here, and there are perceptions of safety in Canada that other parts of the world can't necessarily make a claim to. Beyond that, also, the Canadian dollar relative to the American dollar is very advantageous right now," she says.
The picture of foreign applications at other universities is uneven. The University of British Columbia has a heavy international student population and has already been recruiting in the United States for decades, whereas Queen's University in Kingston is among the larger universities looking to increase its international student population.
Queen's is aiming to increase its proportion of fee-paying international undergraduate students to 10 per cent by the 2019-20 academic year.
"In undergraduate admission, we have focused our efforts on four primary regions: international students in Canada; the Northeastern U.S.; China and India. We continue to see strong growth in applications from highschool students in these and other countries, including many Canadian students living abroad," the university said in a statement.
The University of Toronto's Mr. Levin notes that U.S. students at U of T have a broad range of interests, with many drawn to the humanities, whereas it is still true that students from other parts of the world tend to gravitate to STEM disciplines (the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) once they come to U of T. So there's a desire at the university to expand international students' interests in classes across the breadth of disciplines.
"We have quite an array of subject offerings, so we're looking for great humanities students and social science students, in addition to the engineers and computer scientists," he says.