Studying in Canada vs. the United States
There are an estimated 1.57 million international students, between Canada and the United States (U.S.), with tens of thousands more set to enter North America annually, in pursuit of higher education.
The decision to study in either the U.S. or Canada is one that many of these students will face. While the two nations are comparable with respect to quality of education, and post-Graduation employment opportunities —there are key differences in tuition, financial aid, and immigration opportunities post-graduation, that have made Canada a preferred destination among international students.
Quality of Education
Though quality of education is often specific to individual academic institutions (and programs of study), there are notable comparisons that can be made higher education in Canada and the U.S.
In the 2023, QS (an internationally recognized higher education analytics agency) ranked the best student cities internationally. Canada held three of the top 20 spots (Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver), while the United States held two (Boston and New York City). This is a general indication of evenness in the quality of education between both countries—at least in the cities that make up their post-secondary educational hubs.
While this is helpful, what happens when we look at data on a country-by-country basis?
A recent survey conducted by the IDP (International Development Project)—an international education organization specializing in student placement in Canada, Australia, and the US—found that Canada was overwhelmingly the top choice destination of study among international students: 27% of respondents consider Canada as their first choice. By comparison only 15% of respondents picked the U.S., which ranked fourth—trailing behind Australia and the United Kingdom (U.K.) respectively.
If quality of education is largely similar, are there other reasons that international students strongly preferred Canada to the U.S.?
Tuition costs are a huge factor in choosing where to study abroad. In the U.S., the average cost of education is between $20,000 to $60,000 USD, depending on whether one attends a public or private institution, and what level of study one is pursuing.
Conversely, the average cost of post-secondary education in Canada is between $20,000 to $40,000 CAD—again dependent on institution and level of study. Note however, the difference in currency. Canada’s more favourable exchange rate with international currency (in addition to lower average tuition costs) makes it an attractive destination for international students—especially when compared to the U.S.
International students may also consider the availability of scholarships and bursaries. While the United States does have state funded, and institution-specific scholarships for international students—there are no federally funded programs to deliver financial aid to international students. International students in the U.S. are also eligible for student loans, though they will need a credit-worthy co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Meanwhile, Canada has scholarships and bursaries for international students on the university, provincial and federal level, that are often much easier to avail than comparable programs in the U.S. Based on their eligibility for the previous financial aid options, international students may instead choose to take out a private loan with a bank in Canada. These loans often have student specific interest rates, that can make repayment more feasible for international students.
Work possibilities for international students
Work outcomes were largely the same for international students in both Canada and the U.S., with some noted difference between the two.
For example, a survey by World Education News + Review (WENR) found that 62% of 1,095 international alumni respondents had found full-time employment after graduation. The National Bureau of Economic Research also found that roughly 23% of Master’s graduates found work in their state of study.
Comparatively, a 2022 study conducted by Statistics Canada found that international graduates at all levels of study had on average a 73% full-time employment rate.
In summary, while Canada does have much higher international graduate participance in the workforce, work outcomes are largely comparable.
However, work for many is not just a means of financial security, but also a path to immigrating permanently to the country of their study.
While attaining a green card for permanent residence (PR) in the U.S. can be difficult, international students in Canada have a much simpler time staying permanently—with clear paths to PR available after graduation.
In the U.S., the path to a green card after graduation as an international student usually involves one of three pathways:
- Apply as an immigrant worker (economic immigrant) under one of five “preference” categories, or apply themselves for the same visa as a person with extraordinary abilities;
- Apply as an immigrant investor; or
- Apply as the spouse/fiancé of a U.S. citizen.
While there are multiple options that international students can avail to temporarily extend their stay in the U.S. as foreign workers, there are fewer paths to obtaining a green card afterwards. One should note that the annual total of economic immigrants eligible for a green card is only 140,000 (between all three “preference” streams), with spouses and children of approved immigrants also counting against this number. The actual number of immigrants admitted to this stream tends to be less than the stated maximum.
Meanwhile, in Canada, immigration for international students tends to be much simpler. Students who have studied in an eligible program (minimum one year), at a Designated Learning Institution (DLI) may apply for a Post Graduate Work Permit (PGWP). This is an open work permit that enables graduates to work in most industries, and for almost any employer. After obtaining at least one year of Canadian work experience, international students can pursue any of the following pathways to PR:
- Express Entry—specifically the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) pathway, which is designed for newcomers with Canadian work experience to become permanent residents;
- The Provincial Nominee Program, which allows specific provinces to nominate immigrants to settle in their province, with provinces often having specialized streams for international graduates;
- Quebec immigration (which operates independently), including the Quebec Experience Program, designed for newcomers who have Quebecois work and education experience; or
- Spousal sponsorship for newcomers who have married a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.
These immigration opportunities, in conjunction with internationally accredited education institutions, favourable prices, multiple financial aid options, and positive work outcomes have made Canada one of the most widely sought-after international study destinations. For many, education represents a path to a better life, and Canada is uniquely able to give international students this opportunity through its immigration pathways.
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