Differences between the American and Canadian university experience

From tuition to tailgating, here’s how US schools stack up to their Canadian university counterparts.

Cost

It’s no secret that the cost of university education is rising fast, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the US, where tuition alone at private colleges averages over $30,000 a year. By comparison, the estimated average cost per year for Canadian students (including rent, food and other incidentals) is about $20,000. American tuition prices vary depending on whether you choose a state school or a private one, and whether you’re attending in your home state or traveling elsewhere. It also contributes to an average of about $30,000 US per student in debt post-graduation. While this is a lot of debt for anyone just starting out in their career, it’s not much higher than average graduate debt here in Canada.

Greek Life

Just like in the movies, sororities and fraternities can be a big part of life on American college campuses. These “Greek” groups exist in Canada, of course, but are far less popular here and often exist on the periphery of university life, without official recognition by schools or student councils. At many American universities the sorority or fraternity you join (or whether you join at all) can be as much a part of your collegiate identity as what you choose to study.

Parties

The legal drinking age of 21 across the United States has a significant influence on the nature of social life at American colleges. As a result, those who wish to imbibe before reaching the age of majority in the US—even if enforcement on campus is very lax—will still be breaking the law. While many students choose not to drink alcohol on both sides of the border, but the option to (legally and responsibly) meet friends for a drink after class might make Canadian schools more attractive to some.

Athletics

As any sports fan knows, college athletics is a very big deal in the US, with NCAA basketball and football generating almost as much excitement as the pros. In Canada, while many students take part in athletics, the stakes are significantly lower. This is reflected both in the amount of scholarship money schools give to student athletes (an average of $1,060 in Canada, compared to a whopping $18,000 in the US) and the importance of athletics to campus life at large.

Admissions

The US college admissions process is notoriously fraught and stressful for applicants. Part of the stress comes from sheer choice: the US has over 5,000 colleges and universities, compared to around 100 in Canada. Despite the number of schools in the US, however, a large portion of the population vying for a relatively few number of spots at the ones with the best reputations creates stiff competition for admissions. For example, one respected California university received over 47,000 applications for the 2022 school year, but admitted just 2,000—less than 5%. The other big difference in the admissions process is the importance of standardized tests like the SAT. While Canadian high schoolers are evaluated primarily on their marks, their American counterparts must devote time and energy to preparing for these tests, the results of which can have a major impact on their chances of being accepted at the school of their choice.

Hierarchies

While some Canadian institutions may lean into comparisons to the American Ivy League, universities in Canada tend to be on much more even-standing, which is an advantage to Canadian students. Of course there will always be historic schools with great reputations, but one of the best things about the Canadian university system is its reputation for an overall high quality of education across the board. Unlike the US, where many students attend college out of state, for most Canadian there’s likely a good school within a few hours’ drive of home.

Endowment Size

Fundraising for endowments is a longstanding tradition in American schools, but it’s only caught on here in Canada in the last few decades. The result is that Canadian universities have much less “in the bank” than their American counterparts. For example, more than 20 American schools claim endowments over a billion dollars, and the top 5 have over 20 billion apiece. In Canada, while the three most well-endowed schools have over a billion dollars apiece, most have far less. While the size of an endowment isn’t everything, (especially when much of it goes to providing scholarships to defray exorbitant tuition costs) that money also goes towards new buildings, funding for student councils and state of the art technology—all things that improve the student experience.

Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.

Jeremy Freed is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.

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