Attending university in Canada and abroad
When my son enrolled at Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, he was officially an international student, yet he had plenty of familiar company: a third of the student body at this small private liberal arts school hails from the United States.
Though the percentage of Americans at other Canadian universities isn’t typically that high, the number of U.S. students pursuing higher education in Canada is growing. Like my son, many are drawn to an international experience in a cross-cultural context close to home.
There are appealing reasons to look at Canadian universities, as well as important considerations to mull over before your student opts to head north of the border — or elsewhere outside the U.S. — for a degree.
Why consider studying in Canada?
While Canada has about one-tenth the population of the U.S., it boasts a number of world-class public universities. And while tuition at many private institutions in the U.S. tops $45,000 per year, the cost of a high-quality education for international students in Canada is often half, or even a third, of that figure. This is frequently the case at premier universities in other countries, too, including the United Kingdom. A favorable exchange rate — currently $1 USD = $1.24 CDN — gives a Canadian degree even stronger economic appeal.
U.S. federal loans and grants can be administered by most Canadian universities, and 529 college savings plans may be used in Canada. It’s not surprising, then, that the number of U.S. students attending universities in Canada rose 50 percent from 2003 to 2013 according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
There are, however, aspects of studying in Canada or overseas that can be complicated for American students, several of which my family discovered through personal experience.
10 things to assess when applying to a Canadian university
Canadian universities are typically accredited by provincial governments. Some professional programs such as nursing or engineering may also receive national or international accreditation. If your student starts off in Canada and ends up transferring to a U.S. university, as my son did, proper accreditation is important to ensure that credits transfer.
Most Canadian universities base admissions decisions on course grades, primarily those earned during junior and senior year, and on SAT or ACT scores. Few require essays or letters of recommendation, though some do. Competition among international students can be intense; generally an A average is necessary to be a contender at the most reputable universities.
We had no idea, till our son had already decided on a Canadian university, that most private scholarships available to Americans can only be used at U.S. institutions. And while some Canadian universities award merit scholarships to international students, such awards tend to be few or highly specialized.
To study in Canada for longer than six months, you must procure a study permit on arrival at the border, unless you arrange several months ahead to do it via the mail. Rather late in the game we checked on required documentation and discovered that in addition to a passport and letter of acceptance from a Canadian institution, an incoming student must show proof of funds to finance a full academic year of tuition and living costs. We were fortunate we could produce a bank statement showing just enough in savings to cover that – but for students paying term to term, this could be a serious obstacle. If you’re utilizing loans to cover costs, the necessary sum must be in place to receive the study permit.
Paying for tuition is more complicated when a foreign currency is involved. To avoid the high cost of an international wire transfer or credit card fees, we had our credit union issue a cashier’s check in U.S. dollars to our son’s university, at the exchange rate stipulated on the date of issue. The university then assessed a conversion transaction fee of around 2 percent. No matter how hard we tried, we discovered there was no way around the extra fees involved with dealing in a second currency.
Canadian universities tend to be big, with limited housing. Though this was not my son’s experience at Quest, where nearly all the school’s students live on campus, Canada’s large public institutions cater to commuters. Just 9,400 of UBC’s 50,000 Vancouver students live on campus, while the University of Toronto, with a total student body of 83,000 on three campuses, has housing for 6,400. Many universities, including UBC and Toronto, guarantee on-campus residence to full-time first-year students who meet application deadlines. In other cases, university housing departments typically provide extensive online resources for finding non-university housing, roommates, etc.
Flights from the U.S. to Canada often cost much more than domestic routes. We found it significantly cheaper for our son to fly from Denver to Seattle and take a bus to Vancouver than to fly direct from Denver to Vancouver. Likewise, it may cost less to fly into Buffalo than Toronto. If flights are required, check your options when budgeting for transportation.
Many U.S. health care plans do not provide adequate coverage for students living abroad. Our plan covered emergency care only. In many settings, including Canada, students must have additional insurance. Canadian universities typically make insurance available for international students through an additional fee – we paid about $600 for the academic year.
In most cases, your student will want to set up an account at a local bank. My son opted to get by with a debit card and ATM withdrawals from his account at home, but each time he took cash out, there was a foreign transaction fee. If your student works, a local account will be essential for cashing checks drawn on Canadian banks.
As we discovered, cross-border cell phone options can be incredibly complex. What’s key is to avoid costly roaming charges when calling or texting to or from Canada or other countries. Some U.S. cellular providers offer North American or other international plans. We paid an extra $3.99 a month for a plan that allowed unlimited texting to and from Canada, and voice calls at a discounted (though still pricey) rate. Our son did not use data on his smartphone unless he had free Wi-Fi, and we relied a lot on Skype. Some students have two phones and two plans — one in the U.S. and one in Canada — though this is expensive. Others may be able to use two interchangeable SIM cards.
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