Adding a new topic to the conversation about American colleges and their quality and cost, an article last week in the Toronto Star introduces another option: some Americans are just opting out of the whole process. In the last ten years the number of Americans seeking higher education in Canada has tripled. Experts predict some 10,000 Americans will be earning their degrees up north in 2009:

A U.S. customs agent once grilled Emily Nicotera about why she was leaving Buffalo to attend the University of Toronto: “Can’t you study biology here in the States?”
Sure, she answered, “but private… schools in the U.S. cost $40,000 to $50,000, and my first year tuition at U of T is $13,000.”

Nicotera figured out that the solution for her was to go to college out of state, way out of state. The Canada solution is obviously a rather limited trend. There are, after all, less than 100 universities in Canada, in contrast to more than two thousand accredited bachelors degree granting schools in the United States.

But there is a certain lure to a Canadian degree. Call it an exchange rate issue, sort of. Consider that at Quebec’s McGill University students from Quebec province pay around $3,736 per year, Canadian students from other provinces pay about $7,500 per year, and American students (or, well, all non-Canadians) pay $14,000-$22,000 per year. But this is still a bargain compared to the $51,000 annual price tag to attend an American school like Georgetown University. Americans save money; McGill makes money. Everyone wins.

The goal, as far as recruiters at Canadian schools are concerned, is to spur a sort of American invasion; lure more Americans to study in Canada. Americans make them money. The tough part is convincing American students (and their parents) that these cheap Canadian schools are as good as their pricier U.S. counterparts. Though the University of Toronto is, by most accounts, one of the best universities in Canada, convincing Americans of the school’s quality is, according to U of T admissions personnel, kind of difficult.

Despite occasional efforts to rank the world’s universities, most Americans know nothing about foreign schools. In fact, someone from Minnesota might think nothing of applying to college in Massachusetts even though attending college in Ontario would probably be both cheaper and closer to home.

The hardest part for Canadian schools is apparently persuading Americans that Canada’s universities are still good, largely because they’re cheap. According to a recruiter at the University of Toronto: “It’s the same as the health care debate– they think it’s not as prestigious if it’s not private.”

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer