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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. Here are the top schools in Ontario:

ALGOMA UNIVERSITY

  • Sault Ste. Marie (main), Brampton and Timmins
  • Students: 1,600 Cost: $7,000

Students say faculty are supportive and helpful at Northern Ontario’s tiny undergraduate-focused university. AU is committed to making university education more accessible. The school accepts anyone with a 65-per-cent average or higher, and more than half of students at Algoma don’t come directly from high school. “We don’t want to turn students away; we want to provide them with the opportunities to succeed,” says Brent Krmpotich, director of student recruitment at Algoma.

Money, money, money: Unlike some large universities, Algoma doesn’t have a major endowment fund from which to dole out cash awards and scholarships, but students graduating from high school with an average of 85 per cent or higher automatically qualify for Algoma’s $2,500 entrance scholarship, which is renewable for four years of study. Algoma also has many scholarships based on financial need.

In the community: Students at Algoma’s Northern Ontario Research, Development, Ideas and Knowledge (NORDIK) Institute are collaborating with the Sault Ste. Marie police and the John Howard Society to revitalize the Sault’s downtown core. This year, students gathered donations of soil, flowers and food, and organized a one-day cleanup and beautification in a downtown community.

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BROCK UNIVERSITY

  • St. Catharines (main) and Hamilton
  • Students: 18,000 Cost: $6,600

Brock University is a medium-sized university that is making concerted efforts to excel in both teaching and research. Brock performed well on many indicators of educational excellence in the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement. Research at Brock is all about collaboration between experts from different fields. Researchers in biomanufacturing, health care, the environment and social sciences work together to solve big and complex problems, such as the connection between Canada’s water supply and global conflict over access. Brock is located on the Niagara Escarpment, a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve. As such, land is set aside for conservation and sustainability research. While St. Catharines has a small-town feel, on a clear day students can see the Toronto skyline.

In the community: Brock students across all programs have plenty of opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with community organizations and local businesses. Eighty-five per cent of business students said they worked on a community service project by their senior year.

Students say: The small campus feels like a community. “The size of the campus is nice, because you’re never more than a 10- to 15-minute walk away from any of your classes (if you live in residence). It’s a relatively small campus, but there are still enough students that there is a lot of diversity and people to meet,” says Shannon McCarter, a second-year sports management student.

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CARLETON UNIVERSITY

  • Ottawa
  • Students: 26,000 Cost: $7,200

Students flock to Carleton University for its journalism and political sciences programs. In 2013, more than 1,000 applicants vied for 180 spots in the journalism program, which boasts the highest average entrance grade of all programs at Carleton at 88 per cent. Campus buildings are connected by more than five kilometres of subterranean tunnels, so students (at least those in residence) could altogether avoid the harsh realities of an Ottawa winter if they wanted to. But many relish the chance to skate to class on the world-famous Rideau Canal, which borders the campus.

Outside of the classroom: Students of all faculties have access to 1125@Carleton, a 7,500-square-foot facility providing mentorship, space and other resources to help entrepreneurial students network and develop their ideas. The focus of 1125@Carleton is collaboration and creative problem solving.

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UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH

  • Guelph (main), Kemptville and Ridgetown
  • Students: 27,000 Cost: $7,700

As an institution, U of G is committed to social justice and civic engagement. The school provides many opportunities for students to get involved in real-world problem solving, which results in more than half of Guelph students having volunteered at home or abroad before they graduate. The faculty have earned a total of 15 3M teaching awards in the past 30 years, the second-highest number in the province. Students report that the university offers a supportive environment where the students’ well-being is emphasized. An impressive 92 per cent of fourth-year students rated their entire experience as “excellent” or “good.”

In the classroom: Students in professor Dan Gillis’s computer science class created the Farm to Fork website in response to this question: “In a culture that wastes nearly 40 per cent of all food, how can we connect those who have fresh food to give to those who need it most?” The Farm to Fork website connects grocery shoppers with food banks and social workers to help them provide high-quality, fresh food to those in need.

Out of the classroom: The College of Business and Economics runs The Hub, a business incubator that provides U of G students a dedicated space to build untested ventures. Successful students receive an $8,000 grant, office space, business tools and resources, and mentorship opportunities to help them get started.

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LAKEHEAD UNIVERSITY

  • Thunder Bay (main) and Orillia
  • Students: 8,500 Cost: $7,100

Lakehead University has one of the highest populations of aboriginal students in Canada, at 11 per cent, and the affiliated medical school sets aside at least two spots for native students. Lakehead earned top marks from Research Infosource Inc. for its commitment to undergraduate research, ranking first in Canada in 2013 and third in 2014. Graduates of Lakehead’s forestry program boast a 100-per-cent employment rate two years out.

Out of the classroom: Many Lakehead programs involve work experience, internships and community-based learning outside of the classroom. Students in the outdoor recreation, parks and tourism program can spend three weeks developing programming with local outdoor organizations while earning credit.

Star student: At 22 years of age, fourth-year commerce student Mason Ainsworth was elected to Orillia’s city council in 2014. A big part of Mr. Ainsworth’s platform was about creating jobs for university students to encourage them to stay in Orillia.

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LAURENTIAN UNIVERSITY

  • Sudbury (main) and Barrie
  • Students: 9,200 Cost: $6,800

The modest campus and small class sizes mean professors are more likely to know your name, though students gave mixed reviews on a national student survey when asked about their overall experience at this bilingual university. Only 75 per cent of students said they would choose Laurentian University again if they were to start over, compared to a provincial average of 81 per cent. Still, the university reports an employment rate of 96 per cent two years after graduation.

Out of the classroom: Students in the sports administration program spend much of their time working with A-list athletes. In the past few years, students have been given real business problems to study by executives of the Ottawa Senators and the Minnesota Timberwolves and then travelled to team headquarters to present their recommendations.

This year: The campus gained a speech and language clinic that is open to residents of Greater Sudbury, giving students in the speech-language pathology program a chance to learn alongside certified speech and language pathologists while working with the public.

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McMASTER UNIVERSITY

  • Hamilton (main), Burlington, Waterloo and St. Catharines
  • Students: 29,000 Cost: $7,200

McMaster University is a big player in the research world, but since 2011, the school has identified teaching and hands-on learning as a priority. Eighty-six per cent of fourth-year students ranked their overall experience as good or excellent, outshining the University of Toronto (72.9 per cent) in this measure, but still lagging Queen’s (90.3 per cent).

Year after year, the campus’s Gothic architecture and giant willow trees are praised by students who constantly take to Instagram to document the beauty of their surroundings.

This year: McMaster launched Spectrum, a business incubator for students in all faculties that fosters start-ups through grants and competitions. In its first start-up competition this spring, $55,000 was given to four student entrepreneurs.

In the community: Each year, first-year engineering students are tasked with helping someone in the local community overcome a physical challenge. Last year, students worked in small groups to come up with a tool that would help a woman with severe arthritis hold the nozzle of a gas pump, giving her greater freedom in her work and personal life.

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NIPISSING UNIVERSITY

  • North Bay (main), Bracebridge and Brantford
  • Student: 5,400 Cost: $7,000

Little Nipissing University does well for its size, earning high praise for interactions between faculty and students from both first- and fourth-year students. Class sizes are small, and students report that their instructors are organized, effective and provide prompt feedback. One-quarter of first-year and half of senior-year students reported being involved in a co-op, internship or work experience, which is higher than the provincial average. The school doesn’t offer much financial help; very little of Nipissing’s budget is put toward student aid.

This year: Due to budget cuts, Nipissing is immediately discontinuing programming offered at its Brantford campus. Students currently enrolled there will be able to complete their studies before the school cuts its program in partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University. The university also announced that fall 2016 will be the last class to enroll at the Bracebridge campus in Muskoka. The campus will remain open until current students complete their degrees, at which point the child and family studies and the culture and the arts programs are expected to move to North Bay.

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OCAD UNIVERSITY

  • Toronto
  • Students: 4,500 Cost: $7,000

Canada’s largest art and design university dedicates the smallest percentage of its budget toward financial aid and its library of any university in Ontario. OCAD U does, however, provide students with plenty of volunteer, networking and work-experience opportunities. At the school’s annual design competition, students work in teams to tackle issues facing the city of Toronto, such as redesigning public spaces to be accessible and inclusive. OCAD U’s career development program is run by practising artists, and students have access to Career Launchers, which provide graduating students with artistic and employment opportunities at companies such as Bell Media and the Royal Bank of Canada.

Students say: Students consistently complain about the stressful environment, lack of resources to do their work and out-of-date facilities.

Star students: A team of OCAD U students took first place in the Association of Professional Futurists 2014 Student Recognition Competition for their work looking at the potential evolution of Canadian public broadcasting over the next two decades.

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UNIVERSITY OF ONTARIO INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

  • Oshawa
  • Students: 2,700 Cost: $8,500

UOIT offers unique science and technology programs, such as automotive engineering and nuclear power. Last year, 2,500 applicants competed for 680 spots in the engineering program, which has an average entering grade of only 78.4 per cent, a more accessible entrance point than many engineering schools. The school prioritizes hands-on learning and provides students with many opportunities for internships, clinical placements and paid work experiences in most undergraduate programs.

In the classroom: Students in the forensic science program swab the Crime Scene House, a facility where students analyze blood stain patterns and bullet trajectories in mock-crime scenes. In the “forensic garage,” students study vehicular crimes, such as hit-and-runs.

Out of the classroom: UOIT student Spencer Turbitt and his business partner managed to make a deal with the dragons. Their software, iApotheca, which helps pharmacies digitize their databases and processes, earned the pair $60,000 on Next Gen Den, an online version of CBC’s popular Dragons’ Den show targeted at entrepreneurs under the age of 40.

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UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA

  • Ottawa
  • Students: 39,000 Cost: $6,700

The University of Ottawa lays claim to being the world’s largest bilingual university. A large chunk of the school’s budget is set aside for student aid and scholarships, including generous entrance awards for first-year students. Make no mistake, the primary focus at Ottawa is on its research prowess, for which it is internationally recognized. However, it has underperformed on national student surveys; both first-year and senior-year undergraduate students give lower-than- average grades on their overall educational experience.

This year: Three new residences opened in less than 12 months, including the renovation of a large hotel into first-year housing. The fancy new digs run at about $825 a month. Students get their own kitchen, bathroom and double bed.

Out of the classroom: School of Social Work professor Marjorie Silverman gives her students the option of volunteering 30 hours of their time in the community in lieu of one assignment. Last year, students worked in shelters, tutored school children and took disabled adults on outings around town.

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QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY

  • Kingston
  • Students: 26,000 Tuition: $7,300

The Queen’s University campus, on the shores of Lake Ontario, features breathtaking views and stunning early Canadian architecture. The school’s reputation as a haven for academic achievers is reflected in its students, who have an average entrance grade of 89 per cent, the highest in Ontario. Queen’s students ranked the university highest in Ontario for overall satisfaction with their educational experience on a recent national student survey. Considering that 95 per cent of the students at Queen’s are from outside of Kingston, it’s easy to see why so many first-year students (about 90 per cent) choose to live on campus. Access to the school’s massive fitness facility is another benefit; not every Canadian university offers water polo as an intramural sport.

Your typical student: Is a leader. More than half of Queen’s students report holding a formal leadership role in student government or clubs, according to a national student survey. The Queen’s University Alma Mater Society is Canada’s oldest undergraduate student association.

This year: Like a growing number of campuses addressing sexual assault concerns, the university is poised to implement its first sexual assault policy. Many Canadian universities still lack official policies to deal with assaults on campus.

Queen's University features stunning early Canadian architecture.

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RYERSON UNIVERSITY

  • Toronto
  • Students: 32,000 Cost: $7,000

Bustling Ryerson University reflects the fast-paced, innovative city whose downtown it inhabits. The university proudly offers many career-focused learning opportunities, such as fashion design and new media, while putting a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship in all faculties. Ryerson’s journalism program is highly competitive; more than 2,100 students applied for about 300 spots in 2013, and the average entering GPA was 87 per cent. Only about 13 per cent of first-year students live in residence on the commuter-style campus.

This year: Ryerson was named Canada’s first Ashoka (a global entrepreneurship and innovation organization) Changemaker Campus, a designation awarded to 30 institutions internationally, including Johns Hopkins University and Brown University.

Outside the classroom: The university’s unique “zone learning” brings students from multiple disciplines together to develop their entrepreneurial skills and ideas. Students earn academic credit and even a designation on their transcript that identifies them as specialists in entrepreneurship. Areas of focus include the Fashion Zone, SocialVentures Zone and the much-lauded Digital Media Zone, among others.

In the community: This summer, five Ryerson students are travelling to Naujaat, a remote hamlet of about 800 in Nunavut, where food costs are up to four times higher than the Canadian average. The team will build a dome-shaped greenhouse that will hopefully grow 5,000 much-needed kilograms of fresh, affordable and nutritious produce for the community.

Ryerson University is a bustling place that reflects its downtown location.

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UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

  • Toronto (main), Mississauga, Scarborough
  • Students: 77,600 Cost: $7,200

Internationally recognized and celebrated for excellent faculty and research, the University of Toronto is Canada’s largest university. The school can brag that it holds more active Canada Research Chairs than any other Canadian university. Scoring top place in Canada and ranking 20th in the world, U of T sits just one spot ahead of McGill on the QS World University Rankings. Such prestige begets prestige; 11 per cent of all TD Scholars (a prestigious award worth up to $70,000 given to 20 students annually) have chosen to study here. Despite its enormous size, most classes have fewer than 60 students, and on a national student survey, students said they had plenty of opportunity to speak with faculty outside of classroom settings compared with other large universities.

In the classroom: Political science students worked with Toronto Police Service to facilitate consultation with the public about the controversial practice of “carding” (police checking the IDs of citizens without due cause), which, critics say, is a rights violation that disproportionately targets people of colour.

In the community: U of T has received 26 grants, more than any other Canadian university, from Grand Challenges Canada (a government agency funding innovative solutions to global health issues). In one such project, led by professor Axel Guenther, two engineering students created a printer that produces functional skin for burn victims in Cambodia.

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TRENT UNIVERSITY

  • Peterborough (main) and Oshawa
  • Students: 8,100 Cost: $7,500

Students gave the overall Trent University experience a thumbs-up on a national student survey this year. Tuition is free for students with a high-school average higher than 90 per cent, and the school maintains many generous student awards and bursaries. Trent uses a traditional college system modelled after the University of Oxford. Students choose one of five colleges based on their interests and can switch if they want to. Residences, academics and social activities are structured around these smaller learning communities. Students reported spending less time on assigned reading than other Ontario universities but also less time relaxing or socializing.

In the community: Undergraduate students provide research for community organizations through the Trent Community Research Centre. Fourth-year forensic science students Haley Brough and Amy Chapman worked with the Peterborough-Lakefield Community Police victim service unit to identify and assess procedures for communicating and providing services to family members of homicide or suddendeath victims.

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UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO

  • Waterloo (main), Cambridge, Kitchener and Stratford
  • Students: 35,000 Cost: $7,400

The first school in Canada to include co-op learning in its approach (from the day it opened, more than 50 years ago) now claims Canada’s largest co-op program, with more than 18,000 students participating last year. The University of Waterloo embraces entrepreneurship across all 10 of its faculties and the results are apparent in the success of Waterloo graduates. Ninety-five per cent of grads report working in a job related to their degree compared to a provincial average of 73 per cent. Nearly twice as many Waterloo co-op graduates report earning more than $50,000 two years after graduation than the provincial average.

Outside of the classroom: At GreenHouse, students from a variety of faculties live together in an “innovation community” where they work together to tackle social or environmental challenges. While living at GreenHouse, students focus on solving social issues through entrepreneurship and receive mentorship in finance, sales and communication skills. Former GreenHouse resident Christina Marchand started FullSoul Canada, a social enterprise that raises funds to distribute medical supplies in Uganda.

Your typical student: Has no trouble paying back his or her student loans. With co-op term earnings and a generous student-aid program, Waterloo students have some of the lowest default rates in Ontario.

The University of Waterloo strongly embraces the spirit of entrepreneurship.

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WESTERN UNIVERSITY

  • London
  • Students: 31,000 Cost: $7,600

Western University’s long-held reputation as a party school has shifted in recent years as the university doubles down on the high academic performance of its students. The school’s graduation rate and retention of students from first to second year is the second best in the province. The school attracts talented students; many TD scholars (a prestigious award worth up to $70,000 given to 20 students annually) have chosen Western, and the average entrance grade is 89.3 per cent. Western professors have earned more 3M teaching awards than any other Ontario university. Business, English, philosophy and psychology programs rank in the top 100, compared to similar programs worldwide. The school provides many opportunities for students to engage with the community and get hands-on learning experiences.

In the community: Many programs provide opportunities for students to gain direct experience in their field. One course in the School of Health Studies had students working with the Alzheimer Society on a project that used iPods and music as memory therapy for local seniors.

Star students: Following this year’s football season, four of Western’s Mustangs moved up to the Canadian Football League (CFL). They will be joining the Argonauts, Tiger-Cats and Roughriders. Thirtyfour Mustangs have been drafted into the CFL in the past 15 years.

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WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY

  • Waterloo (main), Brantford and Kitchener
  • Students: 18,000 Cost: $7,300

Enrolment at Wilfrid Laurier University jumped 40 per cent in the past 10 years. Class sizes have grown along with the student population. In 2005, 35 per cent of first-year classes were larger than 100 students. Today, nearly half of first-year classes exceed 100 seats. Bragging rights for Canada’s largest business school co-op program go to WLU, and the business program has a graduation rate of 87.9 per cent, the second highest in Ontario. Students gave WLU a high ranking in regards to their overall experience on a recent national student survey.

Out of the classroom: Students in Ontario’s only bachelor of music therapy program at WLU work under supervision in the on-campus music therapy clinic, giving them a chance to work with professionals and members of the public before they graduate.

In the community: Laurier aims to integrate community service into its learning model. As part of this goal, it offered nearly 50 community service learning courses last year across 23 departments to almost 1,500 students. The university is working toward being named a Changemaker Campus, a designation that recognizes leadership in the area of social entrepreneurship that is awarded by Ashoka, an international network of social entrepreneurs.

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UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR

  • Windsor
  • Students: 16,000 Cost: $7,300

Students across faculties are provided with opportunities to engage directly with the Windsor-Essex community as hands-on and service learning is woven into the fabric of many UWindsor programs and initiatives. For example, education students spend time working in alternative classrooms and programs for homeless youth. On a national student survey, where they also gave mixed reviews to faculty and student services staff, such as career advisers and housing services, many students ranked Windsor among the worst in Ontario when asked about their overall satisfaction with their educational experience.

Star student: Alaa Daghache was awarded the 2015 HSBC Woman Leader of Tomorrow award for her work with YouThrive, a program that encourages high-school students to engage in social entrepreneurship. As project manager, she helped double the program’s funding, allowing it to reach twice as many students in 2014.

Out of the classroom: EPICentre is UWindsor’s centre for entrepreneurship. The centre is involved in classes in many programs, working with faculty to integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum. EPICentre offers three business incubator programs (by application) and provides open access to six dedicated spaces with resources, such as boardrooms, 3-D printers and art studios.

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YORK UNIVERSITY

  • Toronto (main) and Glendon (French)
  • Students: 53,000 Cost: $7,200

York students gave the school poor ratings on the National Survey of Student Engagement when asked about their overall experience. Top undergraduate programs include history, geography, archeology and psychology. The school can also boast about top-notch professors. Ninety-four per cent of faculty have the highest qualification in their field. York is the third-largest university in Canada after U of T and the Université de Montréal, but research funding here is comparable to medium-sized schools. The main campus, located north of downtown Toronto, is massive. Students said joining one of York’s 300 clubs can help with meeting others on the commuter campus.

In the community: Through New Opportunities for Innovative Student Engagement (NOISE), social work students work closely with local youth in Toronto’s Jane-Finch neighbourhood. Students raise awareness about research showing that stereotyping damages JaneFinch youths’ chances at success. In 2014, the group worked on issues related to policing, homelessness and access to food.

In the classroom: In their fourth year, psychology students get a chance to apply their often-abstract study of psychology to a real-world problem. Last year, a student worked with the John Howard Society to research how recently released inmates were succeeding after participating in a reintegration program upon their release.

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With Erin Millar, Nelly Bouevitch and Colleen Kimmett

Which university is right for you?

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