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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 the Maritimes:

NEW BRUNSWICK

MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY

  • Sackville
  • Students: 2,500 Cost: $8,300

Widely praised for its liberal arts programs, students at Mount Allison University can choose from five degrees, including bachelors in arts, commerce or science. As an undergraduate-focused university, there are few resources allocated to research; however, summer research positions for students include fieldwork in physics, music, physiotherapy and other areas. Students gave the school top marks for the quality of their interactions with classmates and professors, and most class sizes are intimate, with a 17:1 student to faculty ratio. Picturesque and artistic, Sackville is dripping with East Coast culture, art galleries and live music.

This year: A new $30-million fine arts and drama centre, funded entirely by private donations, opened in October 2014. The Purdy Crawford Centre for the Arts is the first new building on campus in more than 30 years and includes a theatre, classrooms and studios.

Star student: In December, anthropology and English student Bernard Soubry received word that he would be Mount Allison’s 53rd Rhodes Scholar. The distinction comes with a value of more than $100,000 to cover all of the expenses associated with studying at the world-renowned University of Oxford in London. In the past 14 years alone, Mount Allison has produced a dozen Rhodes Scholars.

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UNIVERSITY OF NEW BRUNSWICK

  • Fredericton and Saint John
  • Students: 11,000 Cost: $7,100

Students gave this mid-sized school mixed feedback on a national student survey. When asked about their overall educational experience, only 69 per cent of senior-year students at the Saint John campus said they would definitely or likely choose UNB again if they were to start over compared to 82 per cent at the Fredericton campus. Co-op opportunities are fairly limited outside of computer science, business and engineering programs, but the school is the leading research university in the region. UNB was recognized by Startup Canada as the top postsecondary institution for supporting entrepreneurism in 2014. Opened in 1785, the Fredericton campus is one of the oldest universities in Canada, and its charming colonial architecture is complemented by vibrantly coloured deciduous trees in the fall.

In the library: This June, a librarian discovered a revised fourth draft of a possibly original Star Wars script while digitizing the science fiction collection in the Saint John campus library. The title reads The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills by George Lucas, and includes a red stamp that says “Property of: Lucasfilm Ltd.”

In the community: After Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake this year, a team of UNB researchers who were 3-D-mapping Canada and the United States quickly shifted their focus. Their work helped rescuers and cleanup efforts by providing them with before-and-after models of the mountainous region that showed how the landscape had shifted and which locations suffered the most damage.

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ST. THOMAS UNIVERSITY

  • Fredericton
  • Students: 2,300 Cost: $6,500

More than half of first-year students at St. Thomas University receive an entrance scholarship, and the school dedicates a higher percentage of its budget to student aid and scholarships than other schools in the area. St. Thomas students also have the lowest average student loan debt in New Brunswick. However, a larger percentage of graduates default on their loans than at other schools in the province, which could indicate that graduates have trouble finding work. The exclusively liberal arts school doesn’t offer much in the way of research, but class sizes are small and students gave their professors glowing feedback in a national student survey.

This year: STU raised tuition by $362 this year, in response to a projected budget shortfall and low enrolment numbers. Enrolment has dropped 24 per cent in the past 11 years (though it should be noted that enrolment in arts programming has fallen across all Atlantic universities).

Star student: Recent STU grad Zoe Bourgeois was raised in foster care and adopted at the age of 15. She worked with social work students to petition the provincial government to provide all youth in foster care with their own suitcase, inspired by her experience of having to pack all of her belongings into a garbage bag every time she moved as a child.

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NOVA SCOTIA

ACADIA UNIVERSITY

  • Wolfville
  • Students: 4,500 Cost: $7,000 (Nova Scotia residents), $8,000 (out-of-province)

Students rave about Acadia University’s small classes (an average of 28 students) and personable professors. Acadia students dominate the university town of Wolfville, which they say has a strong sense of community. Eighty per cent of Acadia students spend their spare time volunteering. For its size, Acadia has a lot to offer. Varsity sports are a source of school pride, and all students can take advantage of the related sports facilities. About 40 per cent of undergraduate students live on campus.

In the community: Each year, more than 500 students apply to volunteer with Acadia’s Sensory Motor Instructional Leadership Experience (SMILE). The 30-year-old program helps more than 200 children with developmental disabilities develop their motor skills and reach their personal goals. The program recently added an adult component so that young participants can continue with the program once they reach adulthood.

Out of the classroom: Acadia Global Brigades sends students to Honduras each year to assist doctors, pharmacists and gynecologists in providing health care in rural communities. A second chapter of the organization, Public Health Brigade, works with Honduran locals to install showers, water storage facilities and eco-stoves in rural homes. Both offer students valuable experience in health care and international development.

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CAPE BRETON UNIVERSITY

  • Sydney
  • Students: 3,100 Cost: $5,300 (Nova Scotia residents), $6,600 (out-of-province)

CBU professors received good grades from senior students on a national student survey, but first-year students ranked interactions with professors lower than other universities in the Maritimes. Students also reported that many of their courses involved community and hands-on learning experiences. CBU is a place students want to be; almost 80 per cent of students who are offered a place at the university accept. Still, only 55 per cent of students graduate within seven years, suggesting the university could do more to ensure the success of undergraduate students.

This year: The CRTC granted permission for CBU’s campus radio station, Caper Radio, to broadcast on 107.3 FM, a stronger signal than most college stations. Twenty years ago, Caper Radio could only be heard in the school cafeteria. By 2001, it was streaming online. Its new home on the FM dial means Caper Radio will be heard across the island, a sign of the station’s popularity.

In the community: CBU’s Bras D’Or Institute focuses on marine ecosystem research. Currently, teams of undergraduate and graduate students are working on subjects that include the effects of major dredging in Sydney Harbour in 2011-12, the fate of Atlantic salmon in Cape Breton and the potential for energy generation from the waters surrounding Cape Breton.

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DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY

  • Halifax (main) and Truro
  • Students: 18,600 Cost: $7,200 (Nova Scotia residents) $8,500 (out-of-province)

Dalhousie University is the place to be for research on the East Coast. With leading researchers on staff and a massive research budget, Dal’s research covers everything from the oceans to clean technology to food systems. The $168-million Ocean Tracking Network monitors all five of the world’s oceans. A good chunk of Dal’s budget is set aside for student aid and more than 60 per cent of students receive entrance scholarships. Still, students here tend to graduate with more debt than the provincial average. Fourth-year students gave mixed reviews on a national student survey in 2014, ranking relationships with professors below average, suggesting the university could do more to engage undergraduate students.

In the community: DALConnects is a two-year-old leadership development program open to all students. The program includes a summertime team-building retreat, volunteer work and a reflective assignment. Since its inception, more than 500 students have participated through 55 community partners.

Star students: Dalhousie is a Rhodes Scholar factory, pumping out three scholars (who are invited to study, all expenses paid, at the University of Oxford in London) in as many years. This year, senior student Brittany Graham became Dal’s 89th Rhodie. While earning her dual bachelor’s degree in microbiology/immunology and creative writing, her work took her to aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario and Panama. After her time at Oxford, she intends on returning to Canada to complete her MD and work in Northern Canada.

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UNIVERSITY OF KING’S COLLEGE

  • Halifax
  • Students: 1,200 Cost: $7,000 (Nova Scotia residents), $8,000 (out-of-province)

This liberal-arts-focused university is known for its humanities and journalism programs. There are plenty of scholarships available to students, and the average student debt at graduation is the lowest in Atlantic Canada. The student-owned King’s Co-op Bookstore reflects the university’s strong student culture. Since its inception in 2006, the bookstore has grown to a full-service retail operation that aims to keep textbooks affordable. King’s shares a campus with Dalhousie, and students benefit from access to some of Dal’s resources and programs, including the DALConnects leadership development program.

On campus: Dal and King’s share more than a campus. The joint arts and sciences program means King’s students can take any of 3,600 classes at Dal. Students at both universities can switch their enrolment to either university until the last day of registration. Each school maintains its own residences, and scholarship and athletic programs.

Out of the classroom: King’s is steeped in tradition. April Fool’s Day features a water fight. The College Christmas includes brunches, carolling and parties. Every month, students dress in traditional academic robes, and grace is said in Latin at a formal dinner.

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MOUNT SAINT VINCENT UNIVERSITY

  • Halifax
  • Students: 3,900 Cost: $6,000 (Nova Scotia residents), $7,300 (out-of-province)

MSVU started as a women’s college more than 140 years ago. While it welcomes both genders now, this legacy is still apparent; this year, the university dedicated an entire new building to the accomplishments of women. As with many universities in Atlantic Canada, MSVU enrolment in its arts programs is in decline. As part of its strategy to remain competitive in the increasingly saturated postsecondary market on the East Coast, the university plans to build up its already-large distance education and online course selection. MSVU has also looked abroad to solve its enrolment problem, and now 17 per cent of its student body are international students.

Out of the classroom: Mount Saint Vincent offers four bachelor’s degrees and three master’s degrees online. The bachelors of child and youth studies includes four practicums totalling more than 500 hours of hands-on and applied learning in schools, hospitals and community programs.

Star student: Fourth-year bachelor of arts student Stacey de Molitor organized a book drive for kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the First Nations community of Shamattawa, Man., after their library and all of its contents were condemned due to mould. When she hit major barriers in shipping logistics and costs, she took to social media, Indiegogo and grant writing to solve the problem.

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NOVA SCOTIA COLLEGE OF ART & DESIGN UNIVERSITY

  • Halifax
  • Students: 950 Cost: $5,900 (Nova Scotia residents), $6,900 (out-of-province)

For the passionate artist, consider tiny NSCAD University, where both the main campus and the Academy Building (film studies) are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All students spend their first year studying foundational visual arts concepts before specializing. Students say they feel accepted and welcomed into the diverse and eclectic student body, where individuality is celebrated and self-exploration is encouraged. The campus is located in three heritage buildings near the Halifax waterfront, where culture, galleries and patrons abound.

In the classroom: Amanda Lenko was one of six students who were injured when an off-campus apartment’s third-storey balcony collapsed last September. After the incident, she and her fellow design students began working on an app that would help renters in Nova Scotia identify and flag potentially dangerous rental units.

This year: Three NSCAD graduates, painter Sandra Meigs (BFA 1975), visual artist Micah Lexier (MFA 1975) and jewellery artist Paul McClure (BFA 1989), were named recipients of the 2015 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. NSCAD boasts other heavy-hitting alumni, including Sarah McLachlan and aboriginal artist Tanya Tagaq.

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ST. FRANCIS XAVIER UNIVERSITY

  • Antigonish
  • Students: 5,200 Cost: $6,800 (Nova Scotia residents), $7,800 (out-of-province)

Liberal-arts-centred education at St. FX comes with relatively small class sizes, supportive and available professors, a beautiful campus and a coveted “X-ring” upon graduation. On campus, a sense of community and strong school spirit make for an engaging environment. St. FX students are well supported in their academics; they claim the best graduation rate and the fewest dropouts between first and second year in the province. Still, while X-ers have lower-than-average student loan debt, many students have issues paying off their loans, indicating difficulty finding stable work after graduation. The undergraduate and teaching-focused university doesn’t offer much in the way of research lab experiences, but many large scholarships are available to students who want to pursue undergraduate research.

Students say: The vibrant campus and surrounding community are full of activity. “Many people think of the East Coast as rainy and miserable, but more often than not the sun is shining and people are smiling. There is an air of excitement about the campus all the time, as if there is nowhere else these students would rather be,” says fourth-year political science and philosophy major Benjamin McGrath.

In the community: Maggie Edwards, a fourth-year honours development studies student and recipient of The Irving Research Mentorship scholarship in 2015, spent her summer working on community initiatives to improve food security and sovereignty in Hay River, NWT.

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SAINT MARY’S UNIVERSITY

  • Halifax
  • Students: 7,700 Cost: $6,400 (Nova Scotia residents), $7,700 (out-of-province)

Nearly one-third of SMU students come from outside of Canada, and a new partnership between the Halifax Port Authority and Saint Mary’s popular Sobey School of Business provides international students with paid internships to help them gain valuable work experience and, hopefully, local employment after graduation. The Sobey School of Business also offers a major in global business management with electives in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese or Spanish. Many study-abroad options exist, thanks to SMUs extensive international networking. With only 150 students participating, the co-op program isn’t huge, but is available to all students. Students ranked their interactions with professors as fairly low compared to other small-to medium-sized universities, though most said they would choose Saint Mary’s if they were to start again.

Students say: Amenities are conveniently small and within walking distance, and students benefit from access to a great public transportation system. While the business school’s reputation attracts many students (nearly half of SMU students are enrolled in the business program), those in other faculties sometimes feel as though they are given less attention.

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PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

UNIVERSITY OF PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

  • Charlottetown
  • Students: 4,400 Cost: $6,700

Immersed in Prince Edward Island’s pubs, beaches and live music scene, students at UPEI enjoy a close-knit community. Students say their professors are easy to interact with. With six prestigious 3M teaching awards under its belt, the school is in the top three in Atlantic Canada by number of 3M awards. UPEI attracts students from across Canada and beyond. In 2014, about two-thirds of students hailed from the island. International students made up about 16 per cent of the total student body, while Canadians from other provinces made up another 22 per cent.

This year: In an attempt to get commuter students to hang out at hockey games and other campus events, the students’ union launched a rewards program tied to student ID cards. Students attending events could swipe their ID card to earn points for a chance to be entered in a draw for a $2,000 cash prize at the end of the year.

Out of the classroom: UPEI announced construction of the School of Sustainable Design Engineering, an interdisciplinary approach to engineering that aims to train students to be globally aware, creative problem solvers. The opening of the new school is one of the first steps in the university’s plan to tailor all programming to prioritize hands-on and applied learning.

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NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR

MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY OF NEWFOUNDLAND

  • St. John’s and Corner Brook
  • Students: 18,000 Cost: $3,100

In addition to the typical arts and sciences fare, Memorial University of Newfoundland offers degrees ranging from an arts minor in Newfoundland studies to oil and gas engineering, catering to the province’s cultural and industrial needs. At the Fisheries and Marine Institute, students participate in nautical research, including ocean mapping with Memorial’s very own miniature submarine. The school spends the third-highest amount per student on its library operations in Atlantic Canada. Memorial has the lowest tuition in the country, but the board is considering raising tuition in 2016 to address budget shortfalls. Students are concerned about the possibility of significant hikes to international student tuition and student fees, according to the student newspaper The Muse.

In the community: Hands-on learning is a big part of the student experience at Memorial. Students can participate in co-op, internships, volunteer and leadership programs. Students interested in applying their academic work to community issues can take part in the IMPACT Social Innovation and Leadership Certificate. IMPACT students work in groups to tackle social issues on campus and in the broader community, such as raising awareness of local poverty.

On campus: The extensive MUNnel system connects most university buildings, allowing students to navigate between classes without facing the often-brutal Newfoundland weather. The many brown brick buildings lack the charm of colourful downtown St. John’s, but students are treated to a view of the ocean from the campus.

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With Erin Millar, Nelly Bouevitch and Colleen Kimmett

Which university is right for you?

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