North American Neighbors: Key Drivers of International Student Mobility Between Canada and the U.S.

The influx of international students into both Canadian and U.S. institutions of higher education is continually tracked and parsed. Less often examined is the large-scale mobility between these two neighbors.1 [1] While neither country is the top source country for the other (that distinction for both goes to China), the significant number of students traversing the U.S.-Canadian border makes it an area ripe for deeper inspection. So does the fact that cross-border mobility among students has remained relatively flat for a decade.


Canada and the U.S. are one another’s largest trading partners, with trade in goods and services in 2014 reaching close to CA$870 billion [2] (US$750 billion). They have significant political, cultural, and linguistic ties. The back and forth flow of students between these culturally similar nations is substantial. In the 2014/15 academic year, Canada sent some 27,240 students to the U.S., making it the latter country’s 5th largest contributor of international students [3]. This number declined by 3.8 percent from the previous year, but historically, the count has ebbed and flowed. Similarly, the U.S. was, with 12,450 students sent in 2014, the 6th top country of origin for students to Canada [4], accounting for a little less than four percent of the country’s total international student population. The Institute of International Education (IIE) reported [5] that, among American students pursuing full-time degrees abroad in 2011/12, Canada ranked second only to the U.K. as a study destination.

That said, there’s opportunity for additional recruitment and growth on both sides. Consider: From 2002 to 2012 [6], the numbers of Canadians studying in the U.S. grew by just one percent; the number of Americans studying in Canada actually dropped, albeit by a scant five percent.

Motivation for Mobility

American and Canadian students experience a range of push and pull factors that lead them to cross borders. Though there is little data on the subject, experts say American students are likely attracted to Canada by the relatively lower cost of higher education, a top consideration in general for U.S. students heading abroad for degrees [7]. Canadian discounts can be significant, especially considering the weaker Canadian dollar [8]. Per Toronto’s Globe and Mail [9], January 2016 exchange rates meant that “undergrads paying with U.S. dollars … pay, on average, about $15,000” a year in tuition – “a bargain for those from the U.S., where the average tuition this academic year at a public four-year college was [US] $9,410 for in-state students and [US] $23,893 for out-of-state.”

Canadian students, by contrast, appear to be “pushed” abroad by competition for relatively few seats in high-demand Canadian institutions and programs [10] and “pulled” by the abundance of options such as liberal arts colleges, which are much less a part of Canadian higher education [11].

Beyond those factors, the physical and cultural proximity of the two countries certainly plays a role in cross-border activity. The limited research [12] that’s available on Canadian students in the U.S. suggests that location is often a major deciding factor. The U.S. states that host the highest numbers of Canadian students [13] are mostly northern border states or states relatively near Canada – New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania – with the notable exception of California. (U.S. students predominantly go to British Columbia, Ontario, and Québec – Canada’s most populous provinces [14] – as do a majority of all international students.) Another factor is likely the easy recognition of U.S. degrees in Canada.


The fact that numbers have remained flat for so long indicates that active recruitment should remain a priority on both sides of the border. Evidence shows that the effort can pay off. For instance, successful host institutions, such as Montréal’s McGill University [6] , have targeted recruitment efforts [6] in the U.S.

Students on both sides of the border are receptive to efforts focused on cost and financing. As noted above, the available research indicates that affordability plays a large role for American students studying in Canada. Canadians can likewise be drawn to the U.S. through incentives such as “neighbor country fees [6],” which offer discounted tuition fees well below standard international tuition fees.

One other overlooked opportunity for Canadians seeking to attract U.S. students may be emphasis on Canada as an international destination (rather than merely a convenient one.) Particularly suggestive is the fact that, among American students, Canada is not even in the top 25 destinations for short-term study abroad [15]. (Data on Canadian students in short-term study abroad programs are not publicly available.) This suggests that Canada is sometimes seen as culturally less “international” among U.S. students seeking destinations that are more distinct geographically, culturally, and, often, linguistically.

An infographic presenting an overview of international student mobility between Canada and the U.S. [16]

1. [17] Experts [18] have noted previously that the close cultural connections between the two countries may be one reason, if not the main one, for the lack of discussion about student mobility between the two.