BOSTON — Some of the top names in American higher education were pursuing Matthew Jackson: Cornell, the College of William and Mary, and Johns Hopkins.
But instead of choosing one of those, the Fairfax, Va., teen packed his coat, gloves, and gear for a 600-mile trip north across the border to Montreal's McGill University.
The deciding factor: the weak Canadian dollar. Some of those prestigious American institutions would have cost almost $30,000 a year, Mr. Jackson figured. But with today's favorable US-Canada exchange rate, McGill was a bargain at barely one-third the cost.
"I was interested in going someplace different," says Jackson, a rising sophomore. "McGill was just as well regarded as the others, but it was so much cheaper."
That promise of smaller student loans is just one of the reasons Canadian universities are on an intensive campaign to woo US students. In mailings and at college fairs, northern schools are also touting strong academic credentials and safe campuses in a bid to make Canada the smart alternative to US colleges.
"It's not an easy market," says John Corlett, dean of students at the University of Windsor, across the river from Detroit. "There's lot of rules and regulations we have to obey and many US high-schoolers are already overwhelmed by the choices."
Still, many say the two-year-old push to lure students north is showing results.
About 3,300 Americans studied in Canada in 1997-98, a 15.5 percent jump over two years, according to Statistics Canada, the government data cruncher. Far more Canadians, about 23,000, study in the United States, of course. But that hasn't slowed Canadian schools.
"Almost all of our 90 universities are now marketing themselves to America," says Jennifer Goldstone, a spokesman for the Ottawa-based Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The Canadian embassy has helped put together a Web site and a "Study in Canada" CD-ROM.
That's a change. Until the 1990s, Canadian universities were jammed with students and well-funded by provinces. Now, enrollment is flat and provinces slashed funding 21 percent between 1997 and 1991, a recent AUCC report says.
So far, such cuts have not affected academic quality, close observers say. But it's a fundamental reason schools like the University of Toronto are on big endowment drives as well as working to attract international students who pay full tuition.
"We were very impressed with what we saw," says Jeanette Spires, an independent college counselor in Chicago who visited 11 Canadian universities last fall. "They were genuinely interested in having US kids come up and have a good experience."
So far this year, Ms. Spires has recommended Canadian universities to eight of the 40 high school students she assists each year. She and others say there is little reason to worry that a future employer may not be familiar with the name of a Canadian university. "Microsoft hires hundreds of people from the University of Waterloo," Spires says. "If it's an international company, they understand the value of a broader view of the work world."
Carl Behrend, director of guidance at Orchard Park High School near Buffalo, N.Y., an affluent area, welcomes the influx of Canadian universities at college fairs.
"The value of a Canadian degree is certainly marketable today," he says. "We have at least a half dozen kids this year who have applied to Canadian universities."
But low cost, he and others say, is only one factor drawing Americans north. Safety is big, too. Canada's tough gun laws and low crime rates make for safer cities and campuses. That, along with good academics and close proximity to the US is often a winner with students and parents.
"I just fell in love with Toronto," says Courtney Rogers, a Nashville, Tenn., resident who is among the top 2 percent of students nationwide. "I got brochures from 75 schools and I was looking at Boston University and New York University. But the University of Toronto is closer than they are - and my parents liked the city better. They thought it was safer there."
Still, the big draw for many is the feeling of being immersed in a different culture. Hockey, not football, is big on nearly every campus in the country. Ms. Rogers was drawn to the University of Toronto by the diversity that students from 135 countries provide. For Mr. Jackson, McGill has been "an incredible place to live," he says.
"There's a totally different culture here - you're hearing a different language that's not typically American," he says. "That's a thrill for me."
McGill is a good example of the growth spurt. Perched on the side of Mount Royale in downtown Montreal, it is an English-language university in a French-speaking province. Started in 1821 with a fortune left by British fur trader James McGill, the university has 16,000 undergraduate students - and is enjoying a surge of interest among top American students.
In the past two years, McGill has expanded its marketing beyond New England to college fairs in Washington, Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The result: American applications have jumped 30 percent this spring over last year and are 80 percent higher than five years ago. McGill had about 340 American students last year - including Jackson. This fall, Ms. Redmond expects 470 to 500 Americans.
Other schools touring the US, such as the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, have also seen increases. Both have traveled with McGill under the "Canadian Ivies" banner.
Other lesser-known institutions bounce off the longtime theme (in Canada) that Americans think all there is up north is cold weather. The University of Guelph, in a southwest Ontario town of the same name, mailed humorous brochures to 58,000 US seniors last year. A parka-clad, snow-encrusted student on the cover asks: "So you think you know Canada, eh?"
The pitch appealed to Jennifer Lento, a Pennington, N.J., student. She could have attended several US schools, but chose the University of Guelph instead. "When I saw how great their environmental-science program was, I just had to visit," she says.
After her first year, she's sold. "Most of the time you don't even realize it's another country," she says. "But then something pops up that says, 'Oh yeah.' In the dorm, all my Canadian friends are keeping an eye on the two of us [Americans] - they're all waiting for me to start saying, 'eh?' "
*Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tips for attending college in Canada
TIP ONE: Be advised, Canada is not an extension of the United States, so Canadian admissions officers do not appreciate being approached as though it were. Canadians do appreciate Americans who know at least a little bit about the country (Fun fact: it's geographically the world's second-largest nation. Russia is the largest.) For Canadian current events, try: www.globeandmail.com on the Web. And remember: French is spoken widely only in Quebec - and it doesn't snow year round just over the border.
TIP TWO: Americans are not usually eligible for scholarships or financial aid from Canadian universities. The attractive discount is in the exchange rate and the large subsidy from the province.
TIP THREE: With high unemployment in Canada, it is usually difficult or impossible for an American student to get a permit to work off-campus. However, on-campus student work is often permitted.
To investigate one or more of the 90 universities in the Great White North, check out:
www.studyincanada.com - this site is produced by the Canadian Embassy in Washington. No flashy graphics. But it contains cost, facilities, admissions requirements as well as a list of all programs for each university.
www.aucc.ca/en/index.html - this site of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada has a directory of, and links to, all Canadian universities' sites, facts and figures and much more. Or write to the AUCC at 350 Albert St., Suite 600, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1R 1B1