Universities 2000

Voting with Their Feet

In an age of vanishing borders and crowded classes, the lure of studying stateside is growing

John Schofield November 20 2000
Universities 2000

Voting with Their Feet

In an age of vanishing borders and crowded classes, the lure of studying stateside is growing

John Schofield November 20 2000
At the age of 6, Kyle Doerksen turned the ravine beside his parents’ Calgary home into his personal laboratory, snaring butterflies and grasshoppers for inspection under his junior microscope. As he grew up, his fascination with science took a quantum leap, into the realms of computer science, radar and artificial intelligence. An A student at Western Canada High School, he made a splash at a series of national science fairs. Last year, he won a $5,000 Young Canadian Innovation Award for designing software that enables radar to detect land mines more effectively. And this past summer, he was invited to explore computational neurobiology at a laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., using computers to simulate the brain’s thought processes.

Not surprisingly, when it came to choosing a university, the young scientist with dreams of becoming a high-tech entrepreneur had several options. Queen’s University offered him a prestigious Chancellor’s Scholarship, worth $26,000 over four years. Harvard beckoned with a scholarship worth the Canadian equivalent of $39,975 a year. Doerksen wavered—until he saw California’s famed Stanford University. The Nobel-studded faculty and the abundant opportunities for undergraduate research were too much to resist—not to mention a scholarship worth $41,670 annually. “For me, I knew this was the place,” says Doerksen, 18, now in his first year of science. “In terms of technology and business, this is the center of the world. The resources are just incredible.”

In an age of vanishing borders and overcrowded classrooms, the lure of studying abroad is growing stronger by the year. Globalization has made students hungry for international experience, and for the critical edge it brings in an increasingly competitive job market. Traditionally, the road south has been traveled by two groups: the offspring of the Establishment and young athletic stars. But foreign universities, striving to internationalize, are courting Canadians more aggressively than ever. Many are bridging the yawning affordability gap with generous financial aid, although assistance is still off-limits at many U.S. public universities. Still, even as the value of the Canadian dollar has declined, the number of Canadians studying at U.S. universities and colleges has been steadily rising. Between 1991 and 1999, the number increased 29 per cent to a total of roughly 23,700 students, split more or less evenly between undergraduate and graduate studies.

Not surprisingly, the trend is particularly dramatic for those graduating from certain private schools. A growing proportion of those who can afford to choose American schools are doing so. This fall, 27 per cent of the graduating class at Toronto’s Upper Canada College went to the United States, compared with 12.6 per cent in 1996; at Vancouver’s St. George’s School, 14.8 per cent headed south, up from 7.3 per cent four years earlier. Clearly, an increasing number of Canadians from all walks of life are eyeing the American option. And while the number of U.S. citizens attending post-secondary institutions in Canada has jumped more than 40 per cent since 1996, the total remains small, roughly 1,000.

For many Canadians looking south, the search for quality is the key. Harvard, with its $28.8-billion endowment, boasts a student-faculty ratio of 8:1. Yale is even better, with one professor for every six students. Important facts when you consider that Canadian classrooms, already crowded, are going to get more so. Between now and 2010, the number of those heading to university is expected to soar by more than 20 per cent. In Ontario, the move to a four-year high-school program—doubling the size of the graduating class in 2003—has made matters worse for the province with the largest proportion of students.

For prospective applicants, that means access to elite programs will become tougher than ever. At McGill University, the 10-per-cent acceptance rate for its competitive electrical engineering program is lower than the one at its prestigious medical school. At Queen’s, the average entering grade for the red-hot commerce option was 90 per cent this year. While universities are working to boost capacity, funding is still a stumbling block. “We’re not going to expand programs,” says Queen’s principal William Leggett, “where we cannot deliver quality first.”

While some of the most talented students still look to the Ivy League for academic credentials with worldwide cachet, a good number of Canadians are drawn to a wider range of U.S. options. Many students are seeking the rigor and relative intimacy of private liberal arts colleges. Vermont’s Middlebury College has seen Canadian applications jump 50 per cent since 1995. Meanwhile, a large number of Canadians are applying to professional programs such as pharmacy, dentistry and education. At D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., Canadians now comprise 75 per cent of those enrolled in its faculty of education, and a third of its total student body. D’Youville has stepped up its recruitment campaign at Ontario high schools, and plans to build a $ 14-million, five-storey academic center, partly in anticipation of Ontario’s monster class in 2003. “We’re expecting a huge influx from Canada,” says Joe Syracuse, director of graduate admissions.

D’Youville is just one of a growing number of U.S. institutions rolling out the welcome mat. Many have become regulars at Penny Bissett’s International Education Fair. When the Toronto-based education consultant launched her event seven years ago, only 22 American universities turned out to market their wares. Last month, 140 institutions from the United States, Britain, Australia and Germany strutted their stuff for 4,000 students and their parents at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. For the past three years, Bissett has staged a similar event in Vancouver, and this year she expanded to Winnipeg. The participants ranged from such prestigious stalwarts as Notre Dame and Carnegie Mellon universities, to more obscure players, including Pennsylvania’s Quinnipiac College and Tri-State University in Indiana. Currently, more than 700 students from Ontario alone are enrolled at Michigan’s Wayne State University.

The drive to globalize has fueled the interest in attracting Canadians, says Bob Cristadoro, an expert on U.S. enrollment management. And in a market with about 3,000 colleges and universities, the competition for students is fierce. “A lot of U.S. universities are in a begging capacity,” says Cristadoro, now a senior vice-president with the American Institute for Foreign Study, a Stamford, Conn.-based educational travel company. “Colleges realize that Canada can be a fertile hunting ground.”

Bissett’s show is not the only game in town. This year, Harvard and six other Ivy League universities expanded their annual Canadian recruiting tour to include Winnipeg, attracting about 350 students and their parents to St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. “Our interest is in having a really diverse student body,” says Annie Cappuccino, senior associate director of admission at Brown University in Providence, R.I., an Ivy League pillar founded 236 years ago. “We try to reach out to communities who may not be as aware of the Ivies, or may not think they’re ready to apply.”

The rising interest in U.S. universities is spawning an entire cottage industry of private consultants, tutors and other services. Massachusetts-based International Education Finance Corp., which opened an office in Montreal in 1998, offers U.S.-dollar loans that, with a co-signer, can cover up to the full cost of an American education. Meanwhile, The Princeton Review and Kaplan Educational Centers Ltd. have established several Canadian branches to help students prepare for their SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests). Former Toronto guidance counselor Ian Smith charges $50 an hour to guide students through the application process. Last year, Smith was also hired as a recruiter for Saginaw Valley State University, a relatively obscure Michigan school that hopes to capitalize on Ontario’s student bulge. “Business is booming,” says Smith, 57. “People are looking for an educational system that does not seem to be falling apart. They’re looking for a quality experience.”

But quality costs money. And for many Canadians, money remains the biggest barrier to studying in the United States. At Ivy League institutions, the price tag in Canadian dollars can total more than $50,000 a year for tuition, room and board. Small liberal-arts colleges, such as Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College or Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., are not much cheaper. State universities vary in price: the University of Michigan is at the high end, ringing in at about $40,000. One year at the University of Texas costs $21,000. “Most students,” says Larry Bell, head of guidance at Sir Winston Churchill High School in Calgary, “don’t really follow through once they know the cost.”

Grants, scholarships and other forms of aid have made some institutions more accessible than Canadians might expect. Many private universities provide the same needs-based financial aid to Canadians as they do to Americans. And in calculating assistance, they take into account Canada’s low dollar and higher tax rates. Harvard approaches all students, including Canadians, on a so-called need-blind basis, providing whatever aid is necessary once they qualify for admission. Last year, the average aid package totaled $37,950. This year, the average package at Brown totaled about $36,000 a year, with 38 per cent of all undergrad students eligible for grants. For the lucky few receiving full aid packages, the remaining costs were reduced to as little as $14,000. Meanwhile, Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University offers an automatic $4,400 scholarship to students with a 70-per-cent average or higher, bringing the total cost to about $12,000 a year.

When it came to choosing her university, aid made the difference for Gloria Kwon. The 17-year-old, who graduated from Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C., with a 98-per-cent average last June, applied to nearby University of British Columbia as well as Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth. UBC offered her a $26,000, four-year scholarship. But New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College trumped that amount, coming up with a financial aid package that covers almost 95 per cent of Kwon’s $54,000 annual bill. Kwon, the daughter of a Methodist pastor and a stay-at-home mother, hopes to pursue biochemistry and become a doctor. “I was always aware of Ivy League universities, and I thought they offered bigger opportunities,” says Kwon, “as opposed to Canadian universities, which seemed very limited for undergraduate students.”

Increasingly, U.S. universities are finding other ways to soften the financial blow. D’Youville College offers a 50-percent discount to Canadians enrolling in its bachelor of science in nursing program, and a 20-per-cent discount for those in the faculty of education. To help Canadians commuting to the education program, they have scheduled classes over two days, offering an overnight stay in residence for $29. Two years ago, Wayne State in Detroit introduced its “Good Neighbor Policy,” waiving the out-of-state fee for residents of Ontario. That slashed annual tuition from $12,600 to $5,600, and has sent Canadian enrollment soaring by 60 per cent. Most of the cross-border recruits commute from the Windsor area, drawn largely by its pharmacology and masters of speech pathology offerings. “We know we have programs they can’t get anywhere else locally,” says Larry Luvisotto, Wayne State’s Canadian recruiter.

At the most prestigious private universities, covering the cost is only half the battle. Getting in is the hard part. At Brown, 17,000 students vied last year for only 1,400 first-year spots. Of roughly 200 Canadian applicants, 30 cleared the bar. The process begins with the SATs, which gauge verbal and mathematical abilities and general knowledge in three subject areas chosen by the candidate. Students must submit up to four letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors. Essays come next—as many as four or five.

Recruiters also scrutinize extracurricular accomplishments, hoping to divine leadership potential and the contribution each candidate will make to campus life. While Ivy League schools officially shun sports scholarships in favor of need-based financial aid, they still want winning teams. Janet McLeod, a Toronto-based academic consultant, cites the example of an accomplished rower from an Ontario private school who was recruited heavily last year by Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell. “Were really on the lookout,” says Brown University’s Cappuccino, “for quality that seems to shine over and above what would be considered top-notch or impressive.”

In return, the reward is admission to an elite academic environment. Stanford’s faculty, for instance, boasts 16 Nobel Prize winners, many of whom teach undergraduate classes. At universities such as Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undergraduates can apply for grants to engage in independent research. To ensure a well-rounded education, up to a third of all credits must be taken outside a student’s area of specialization. Classes are small— typically 12 to 15 students—and the standards are exacting. “They push you to excel,” says Torontonian Stefan Atkinson, a sophomore at Harvard who plans to major in history. “It’s definitely not a low-stress place.” Ben Sharma, a graduate of Toronto’s Royal St. George’s College now in his second year at Princeton, says that the Ivy League attracts the cream from schools around the world. “The challenge, the concentration of professors and the recognition the degree gets after you graduate,” says Sharma, 19, “is almost an irresistible combination.”

Just months into her first year at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., 19-year-old Hannah Swartz is also struck by the depth of opportunity. Recent campus speakers have included feminist Gloria Steinem and writer Kurt Vonnegut. Above all, Swartz is smitten with Smith’s nurturing atmosphere. Says Swartz, a graduate of Toronto’s Northern Secondary School: “There are good small schools in Canada, but ones like U of T and McGill are just really big. Here, the teachers put a lot of effort into being accessible.”

Sylvia Ryan, a star varsity hockey player from Stellarton, N.S., who graduated from Middlebury College last year with a BA in psychology, acknowledges that the workload was rigorous. But, like the Ivies, the school’s course requirements guarantee exposure to a wide variety of areas. Ryan says the opportunity to sample from an academic smorgasbord helped her realize her true calling is teaching, not physiotherapy, as she once thought. “It was the best four years of my life,” says Ryan, 22, now a hockey coach at an elementary school in Massachusetts. “It provided a lot of opportunities that I don’t think I would have had in Canada.”

For many Canadian parents, those opportunities may go beyond the academic. Networking is the factor that’s mentioned most often by parents, says David Matthews, assistant head of the upper school and director of university relations at Upper Canada College. Many simply believe the States offers their children the very best education. This fall, University of Waterloo alumnus John Gilbank sent his 16year-old son, Ben, to the Taft School, a venerable Connecticut preparatory academy that charges $25,000 a year. Gilbank, now president and chairman of Calgary-based C. E. Franklin, Canada's largest supplier to the oil and gas industry, makes no bones about the fact that his goal is to prepare Ben for a top U.S. university. As a former Canadian consul and trade commissioner in San Francisco and a self-described internationalist, he believes the best American colleges put far more emphasis on educating the whole person. Says Gilbank, 53: “There are some real advantages to being next door to a very sophisticated country.”

The connections students make often last a lifetime. Bruce MacKenzie, a partner with Chapman & Associates, a Vancouver recruiting firm, says alumni networks can improve an Ivy League grad’s career prospects in the United States. “That applies to a lesser extent north of the border,” notes MacKenzie. “But there’s no question that an Ivy League degree stands out on an applicant’s résumé.” Toronto consultant Janet McLeod urges her clients to also explore such top-ranked state universities as the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina or the University of Michigan. “The high-ranking state universities have not had the funding cutbacks that Canadian universities have,” says McLeod, herself a Michigan graduate. But with thousands of U.S. colleges and universities to choose from, it’s always a case of buyer beware. As in the past, Canadians hungry for athletic awards are more willing to gamble on relatively obscure options. Greg Young, a graduate of Toronto’s York Memorial Collegiate Institute, deliberately chose North Central Texas College, near Dallas, to hone his baseball skills. Studying philosophy and literature as part of a two-year program leading to university, Young was also lured by a scholarship that covers tuition, residence, and half of his meal and textbook costs in the first year. Depending on his marks and his team performance, the scholarship could be extended. “Since it’s a junior college, academics are not stressed heavily,” says Young, 18. “But it gave me the opportunity to be playing every day.”

Many observers question the wisdom of attending lesser-known U.S. schools and disregarding well-respected Canadian undergraduate programs. “There’s a huge variation in the quality of U.S. schools,” says Terry Peach, manager of organization and staffing for Mississauga, Ont.-based GE Canada, which recruits more than 95 per cent of its university graduates on Canadian campuses. “Unless it’s a U.S. school I clearly recognize as being high quality, I’m just liable to raise my eyebrows.”

Still, if dire predictions about overcrowding and the echo boom come to pass, going south—even to relatively unknown universities—may be the best option for some students. It was for Joe Persia. For years, the 39-year-old resident of Brantford, Ont., tried to get into teachers’ college, applying in 1987, 1993 and again in 1997. But each time, he was turned away, despite his good academic record and solid teaching experience. Like thousands of Ontario students, he was shut out by a critical lack of space at the province’s faculties of education. On the verge of giving up, he learned in 1998 about D’Youville. The price was steep: about $20,000 for an 18-month program, but he was ready to take a chance. To facilitate practice teaching, the college has established agreements with 44 Ontario school boards. “It’s very customer-service oriented,” says Persia, who will complete his program next month. “I don’t feel for a minute that I settled for second best by studying south of the border.”

For the most part, those who head to D’Youville eventually return to Canada. But many students going to the United States will not come back. The biggest question remains: what happens when a growing proportion of Canada’s best and brightest end up south of the border for their undergraduate education? These are the years when people fall in love, often meeting the person they will marry. They also incur debt, which is easier to pay off in American dollars. And for those who intend to pursue graduate work, it is more likely that they will remain in the United States, where funding is much more flush and opportunities abound. Robert Prichard, the former president of the University of Toronto and currently a visiting professor of law at Harvard, warns that the exodus raises red flags. “Too many students who leave don’t come back, ’ he says. “If we fail to provide opportunities in Canada for learning at the highest levels, increasing numbers of our young people will vote with their feet—and we can’t afford that as a nation.”

Kyle Doerksen is not certain that he will ever return to Canada. Only three months into his new life at Stanford, he has already fallen in love with its super-charged atmosphere. “The concentration of brainpower is just really cool,” he says. At this point, the young Calgarian is almost certain he will stay for graduate work. Ultimately, he dreams of launching his own Silicon Valley start-up. “If I could be getting this at home, I’m pretty sure I would be,” says Doerksen. “But it’s kind of tempting for me to stay here. When it comes right down to it, I’m looking for the best opportunity to learn.” And that could be a bitter lesson for Canada.