SPECIAL REPORT

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

A growing number of Canadian students are choosing the American road to higher learning

VICTOR DWYER November 9 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

A growing number of Canadian students are choosing the American road to higher learning

VICTOR DWYER November 9 1992

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

SPECIAL REPORT

A growing number of Canadian students are choosing the American road to higher learning

Last fall, when Galen Weston Jr. entered his 11th and final year at Toronto’s exclusive Upper Canada College, he took what he now describes as “a long, hard look at a very short list” of Canadian universities to which he wanted to apply. “I considered Queen’s, I considered Western and I considered McGill,” recalls tne 18year-old son of food-and-retail magnate Galen Weston and his wife, Hilary. “And then I thought, ‘Do I want to spend the next four years seeing the same faces I’ve been seeing for the previous 11?' ” Determined to make a fresh start, Weston applied to a handful of prominent American schools, including Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he has just begun a four-year degree. “It’s a bit scary starting from scratch, but frankly, I’m gobbling it all up,” says Weston. “And it’s refreshing to go to a place where people don’t automatically recognize my name.”

Weston is one of a growing number of Canadian students choosing the American road to higher learning.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s daughter, Caroline, 18, and Gov. Gen.

Ramon Hnatyshyn’s 24-year-old son,

John, are among the 122 Canadians at Harvard this fall. Increasingly, those who can afford to are making their way to such prestigious Ivy League schools as Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Yale. Of Weston’s graduating class, more than one-quarter chose to attend American universities—a huge increase from last year’s 14 per cent. And such private schools as St. George’s Senior School in Vancouver and Port Hope’s Trinity College School, 60 km west of Toronto, report that between 15 and 20 per cent of their graduating classes are going south— more than double the figures of 10 years ago.

Despite the evident appeal of the Ivy League, there is great debate as to whether the degree is worth the price tag: $100,000 or more for four years of tuition, room and board. “At the undergraduate level, at least, you don’t have to leave Canada to get a first-rate education,” says Ian Newbould, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “In many cases the students are simply going after a degree with cachet.” Others disaeree. Chamoionine Harvard, where he taught economics for 27 years and is now professor emeritus, Canadian-born John Kenneth Galbraith says that institution “has gone from being a finishing school for the Boston and New York establishment to a genuinely solid place of learning where only the very best applicants get in.”

No matter what the motivation, the migration south reflects a new attitude towards undergraduate education. “The whole process of getting a bachelor’s degree is so much more serious than when I was in high school,” says David Hadden, headmaster of Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ont., who graduated from Upper Canada College in 1971. “Students are aware of the increased competitiveness of the world in which they’re going to live and work, and that makes them more aware of anything that will set them apart from the pack.”

According to their defenders, the strength of the Ivy League schools begins with their admissions process. Students have to submit essays on leadership experience and career expectations, as well as personal references from teachers, counsellors and community leaders. Once accepted,

&he student is often openly courted. Randall Morck, now a professor of financial economics at the University of Alberta, was accepted to Harvard, Yale and Princeton in 1975. By March, he had received letters, phone calls and scholarship offers from all three schools and heard nothing from Canadian universities. Morck estimates that when he arrived at the school of his choice, Yale, almost half of his first-year class were high-school valedictorians. Said Morck:

“There was simply an abundance of very smart, very accomplished people.”

Students of Morck’s calibre cite two other drawing cards: brilliant faculty and enviable student-teacher ratios. Yale, with a private endowment of $3.1 billion, has one professor for every six students;

Harvard, with an endowment of $6.1 billion, has a professor for every eight. In Canada, by contrast, the average ratio is 20:1. “Governments in Canada have cut financing by about two per cent per student per year in each of the past 20 years,” said Douglas Wright, president of the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “The result is that, in many cases, teaching loads and class sizes have increased to compensate.” Still, at the undergraduate level, the gap between the Ivy League and Canada’s top universities may not be that wide. “The smaller class sizes really come into play at the graduate level,” acknowledges Warren Reed, assistant dean of admissions at Harvard. Students routinely face the lecture-hall format, with 200 to a class. Notes Reed: “It’s pretty difficult to interrupt unless you are very self-confident.” Even the most aggressive student may have trouble winning the attention of academic stars. Says Melvin Elfin, executive editor of the college issue of U.S. News and World Report. “The closest most undergraduates get to the big-name faculty is being in the same city—and often just the same country. I don’t understand why Canadian students bother with the Ivy League.”

Some analysts contend that the real allure of the Ivy League is snob appeal. “Almost always,” says Waterloo’s Wright, “it is a case of the

elite buying an advantage for their children that is not available to others.” At Harvard, despite a support program that awarded almost $50 million in loans, grants and jobs last year, students who received aid still paid an average of 60 per cent of the annual $30,000 bill. And only about 150 out of 6,464 students were given what Harvard officials call “zero parent contribution” status, exempting their families from having to make any contribution and requiring students to pay as little as $1,000 towards their annual expenses.

Those who judge the dollar value of education are divided as to whether an Ivy League degree is a sound financial investment. Some corporate recruiters report what they call a “halo effect,” but many experts also emphasize that Canadian corporations have a high opinion of

domestic undergraduate programs. “What is more important to a company,” says David Sprague, a senior consultant at Toronto’s Michael Stem Associates Inc., “is what the individual contributed to university life, wherever he went.” As well, Toronto recruiter Jo Ann Compton warned that students should be aware that in acquiring what she called “the mystique of the Ivy League,” they are also forfeiting the opportunity to develop a large, Canadian-based network of career contacts.

Certain critics advocate the privatization of Canada’s top universities, in effect creating a Canadian Ivy League. “We have a tradition in this country of bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator,” says University of Western Ontario president George Pedersen. “In America, the Ivy League schools set the standards—the best public universities are always working overtime to beat Harvard and Princeton.” Discussion of privatization is usually linked to Queen’s University, where 88 per cent of this fall’s freshmen entered with an “A” average. But Queen’s principal David Smith dismisses the possibility: “A university would have to have a sizable endowment, and the tuition fees would also have to be of a magnitude that we have never seen.” Adds Smith: “The idea is inconceivable for the foreseeable future.” Elfin says that Canadians should be content with what they have. “Down here,” says Elfin “your old established schools have their own cachet.”

For Canadians, the Ivy League’s greatest appeal may be the promise of a fresh start. Weston is clearly flourishing in his new surroundings. Already cast in two plays, Medea and Titus Andronicus, he chose to stay in Cambridge for Canadian Thanksgiving so that he could make rehearsals. Both he and Caroline Mulroney attended the Canadian Club of Harvard’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, eating pumpkin pie and singing the national anthem with 100 fellow expatriates in the stately Freshman Union building. “The ones who have come here have made a very active choice to make something different of their lives,” says Harvard’s Reed. “There’s a whole world out there, and what better time to go out and find it than at age 18?”

VICTOR DWYER