Is College Free in Canada?

Canadian institutions are attracting international students with lower schools fees, a broad variety of courses, and unique degree combinations.

Published November 30, 2021

Is College Free in Canada?
Photo by Lisa Stokes / Moment / Getty Images

  • Canada offers many social benefits, but free higher education isn't one of them.
  • Low-income, in-province students pay the least.
  • International students pay considerably more to study in Canada.
  • Still, average college tuition in Canada is lower than it is in the U.S. or the U.K.

Canada is an increasingly popular country for international students pursuing higher education.

CBC reports that in 2019, the number of new students from the U.K. at Canadian universities rose by nearly 10 percent. Experts are calling this growth a breakthrough for the Canadian higher education system.

Nearly 2,500 U.K. students traveled across the pond in 2019 to join tens of thousands of students accepted from India and China.

America's prestigious Ivy League schools are still the top choice for U.K. students looking to study abroad. However, experts told the CBC that Canadian institutions are attracting students with lower international schools fees, a broad variety of courses, and unique degree combinations.

College isn't free in Canada, but it's more affordable than in many other English-speaking countries. While Canadian tuition prices are still fairly high by international standards, they're lower than rates in the U.S. and the U.K. The relative affordability of Canadian higher education makes the country an increasingly popular destination for Americans and other international students.

Like the United Kingdom, Canada Calls College "University"

"Colleges" in Canada refer to smaller, 2- and 3-year institutions. Similar to community colleges in the U.S., these schools grant certificates and diplomas as opposed to degrees. These practical and professional schools offer programs that can replace a student's senior year of high school and the first year of undergrad. After graduating from a Canadian "college," students can attend university and graduate in three years.

In Canada, there is less interaction between the federal and provincial governments than there is between the federal and state governments in the U.S. As a result, Canada has ten distinct higher education systems.

Provinces exercise considerable power over their universities. University fees are set by provinces, rather than by individual schools. Attending the prestigious McGill University, for example, costs the same as enrolling in any other university in Quebec.

Most Canadian provinces moved toward private funding for higher education beginning in the 1990s. Tuition in Canada — and the amount of average student debt — rose year over year for a decade.

By 2000, provincial governments, led by Ontario, began investing in aid to make up for inflated tuition costs. They established grant programs and the equivalent of 529 plans in the U.S. In recent years, provinces have moved away from awarding universal financial aid and toward distributing need-based aid.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario began attracting a growing number of international students in the early 2000s, a trend that continues today. StatCan reports that 80% of the country's international students were concentrated in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec during the 2018-2019 academic year.

While Canada offers many of the same benefits for international students as the U.S., such as financial aid and visas, the college application process is less competitive. Canadian higher education admissions departments have never focused on test scores, relying instead on GPA.

Canadian universities also conduct research at some of the world's highest rates. Top-tier institutions often possess lucrative industry ties, and Canadian schools benefit from big governmental spending on education. The country is also extremely diverse, with over half the population speaking a first language other than English. Canadian scholars have called the Canadian university sui generis — one of a kind.

In-Province Students Pay Least at Canadian Universities

Just as colleges in the U.S. charge different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students, Canadian universities charge lower fees for residents of the province and higher fees for out-of-province students. Some of the lowest tuition rates in Canada can be found at universities in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador.

Not all the affordable Canadian universities are located in the far North, however. While the other provinces may charge university students more, some have also established more generous financial aid programs. Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta all offer significant aid packages, including scholarships and bursaries — Canadian grants. Ontario even briefly provided free college to low-income students.

University tuition is subsidized by governments for Canadian citizens, which makes it less expensive for them than for international students. According to StatCan, Canadian students enrolled full time in undergraduate programs paid an average of C$6,693 during the 2021-2022 academic year. Universities Canada reports that international students generally pay between C$20,000 and C$30,000 per year, depending on their program of study and province.

By comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that American students paid an average of $9,212 at public, in-state, four-year universities, $26,382 at public, out-of-state, four-year universities, and $31,875 at private four-year universities during the 2018-2019 academic year. These figures do not include the cost of room and board, books, or other fees.According to International Education Financial Aid, international students in the U.S. pay $25,000-$35,000 on average per year at public universities and $30,000-$45,000 at private ones.

Canadian Universities Rely on International Tuition Income

Canada's national reputation as a safe and welcoming country combined with its roster of respected universities — including the University of Toronto, McGill University, McMaster University, and the University of British Columbia — have pulled in hundreds of thousands of international students.

Over the last decade, Canadian universities have increasingly relied on tuition fees in general, and international student tuition fees in particular. The average amount of tuition paid by international students has increased faster than that of Canadian students. According to StatCan, the average annual tuition for international undergraduates increased by 34% to C$27,613 between the 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 academic years. Over the same period, tuition for domestic students increased by nearly 14% to C$6,822.

International students pay four times more to go to school in Canada than Canadians, but the mark-up isn't deterring enrollment. In fact, the number of international students enrolled in Canadian universities more than tripled between the 2005-2006 and 2018-2019 school years, while domestic student enrollment increased by 14%.

Canada's reliance on international tuition incentivizes the country to open back up to international students. Students who wish to travel to Canada to study should check with Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for updates about student visa and travel policies. Before applying for a Canadian study permit, you'll need to apply to a Canadian university and recieve a letter of acceptance.

Canada does not offer preferential treatment to any nationality when it comes to visas, including fellow continental Americans. However, several states have cross-border partnerships with provinces to allow U.S. students to study in Canada, and vice versa, at the local rate. Most tuition reciprocity partnerships exist at border states and provinces, such as between Minnesota and Manitoba, and New England and New Brunswick.