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Is Post-Secondary Education Worth It In Canada?

William Bennett, former US Secretary of Education, addressed this question for US students in his latest book:  Is College Worth It?  Because US tuition and student debt are spiraling out of control, many graduates cannot afford to get married, have children, have a stay-at-home parent, or buy a house, often for years after graduation.

So, is the debt associated with college worth it?   Bennett’s conclusion for US students is that it depends—on the college, on the major, and on the student’s ability, interests, and character.  In some cases the debt will result in increased earnings; in others it will not.  Furthermore, in some cases, college prepares students well for life; in other cases it destroys them by its godless teaching and environment.

Both Is College Worth It? and Debt-Free U expose the racket that US college admissions has become.  US colleges are scrambling, not primarily for students, but rather for the student loan dollars these students represent.  There’s an ever-increasing pool of student loan money, and everyone wants to cash in on it.  US students, however, are the ones who will ultimately have to pay.

What about in Canada?  Is college or university worth it here?  Two, or maybe even three, things are different in Canada.

For one thing, thanks to caps on tuition hikes, Canadian post-secondary education costs much less than that in the United States.  This means that hardworking students can often earn a significant portion of their school year expenses if they are willing to live frugally while studying.  This also means that it is possible for the average family to save up a good deal of university expenses ahead of time.

According to Statistics Canada, the average undergraduate tuition in Canada is $5,366. The total cost for post-secondary education – according to research from the Federal government – including tuition, school supplies, housing and other expenses, amounts to $14,500 a year, or nearly $60,000 for a four-year program. (As mentioned in a BMO study.)

As a result of the reasonable tuition, the student debt load in Canada is significantly less than in the US.

According to a 2012 BMO poll, almost half (49 per cent) of students use loans to help fund post-secondary expenses. Of these borrowing students, “the majority (58 per cent) expect to graduate with upwards of $20,000 in debt and one-in-five (21 per cent) expect to owe more than $40,000.”  These numbers would imply that half of Canadian students do not use loans, and that 40% of those who do use loans will have debt less than $20,000.

From the same 2012 article: The Canadian Federation of Students notes that average student debt is almost $27,000, and according to the Canada Student Loan Program, most students take nearly 10 years to pay off their loans – with some taking the maximum 14.5 years. [Although it is not clear, it seems to me that this average must refer to those students who borrow, not to the total number of students.]

According to 2005 Statistics Canada data, it is, on average, financially advantageous to get a post-secondary education even if the student goes into debt for it.  But of course, it is always best to minimize debt, and students must ensure that they really do understand what the loan repayment will cost them.

The third question is whether the learning itself is worth it.  This question has two aspects, an educational one and a spiritual one.

As someone close to the academic scene all my adult life, it seems to me that the average Canadian post-secondary institution is of higher academic quality than the average US one.  Of course, this statement excludes the excellent elite US universities that everyone knows about, but the rest are apparently not quite as good, on average, as Canadian universities.   Canadians do not need to go to the US for a superb education; of course, if they can get into the top US universities on full scholarship, they should probably go.  Otherwise attending a good Canadian university for a fraction of the price is definitely a wise move.

Spiritually, there is a significant difference in terms of university life. Canadian universities do not push on-campus housing in the same way some US universities seem to, and that can have a huge impact on students.  Campus life in general can be a real spiritual problem, but students who live off-campus can avoid the worst of it much more easily.

As for the spiritual impact of the academics, similarities between our two countries seem to outweigh the differences.  Universities have become bastions of ungodly ideas, especially in arts and social sciences.  With the exception of the biology department, the sciences and engineering tend to have less ungodly material presented in class.  Being taught half-truths and outright lies mixed with facts for 4 years can be hard on a student’s faith.

Some suggest that students should precede their secular studies by a year at a Christian college such as Augustine to help them defend their faith to themselves as well as to others.  Others suggest that young Christians should consider Christian colleges, especially if they are studying arts and social sciences.  Thriving at College, an excellent guide to university life for Christian students in both Canada and the US, discusses this issue.

So, does the US-based book Is College Worth It?  apply to Canadian students?  Not completely.  Financially, Canadian students are much better off than US students because of our lower tuition rates.  Academically, the consensus appears to be that the average Canadian student has access to slightly better education than the average US student.  Spiritually, secular universities can be a risky challenge in either country, especially in certain majors.

In the final analysis, is university worth it in Canada?  While the answer is still, “It depends,” it will be, “Yes,” for many more students in Canada than in the US.

Recommended Reading: 

Thriving at College by Alex Chediak. Every Christian student should read this book. See my review.

Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette, full of helpful financial ideas, is available in the Ottawa Public Library system.  See my review.

Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol, is US-focused but still helpful for Canadians.  See my review. 


  1. Laraba says:

    So does the government subsidize college education more than in America? How do they reduce costs so substantially?
    We are leaning towards CLEP testing, AP testing, online classes, and a local university so the children can live at home during their college years. A mix of that. It’s a ways off (our eldest is 13) but it is certainly on our radar. The huge debt load is a VERY big deal and we really want to avoid that if possible.

  2. Annie Kate says:

    I don’t know, but one thing I’ve noticed: the more expensive US colleges have very pretty campuses. Canadian universities tend to be a bit more careful with their money and focus a bit less on show. It would be interesting to get the numbers on government support, though.

    Also, apparently the increased tuition in the US is related to the increasing amount of student loan money available. This is discussed in Is College Worth It?

    In some cases it is now less expensive for US students to study in Canada as foreign students than to study at their state colleges! I found that astonishing.

    You’ll also want to read Debt-Free U. Both of these books are must reads for any family that has kids going to college and wants to remain debt-free.

  3. Laraba says:

    AnnieKate, I totally agree about the “pretty campuses” thing! My dh and I attended the University of Michigan for grad school (with full tuition provided plus a stipend, because we were in engineering) and it was INCREDIBLE how much was spent on landscaping and scultpures and BELL towers, for goodness sakes. When they put the bell tower up on North Campus, I was thinking — how many undergrads could go to college for the cost of that useless bell tower.
    And yes, I agree also that all the loan money inflates costs. No one HAS to be careful. Also, tenured professors usually teach one class a semester, which I think is reprehensible.
    There are so many “broken things”. My DH and I have joked about me taking a job at the local, well respected, Catholic university for tuition waivers but it has been a joke in that I think I’d need to work full time, which is not practical. I wonder if a very part time job would translate into partial tuition waivers. I should look into that.

    We are on track to pay off our house by the time our eldest is college age. That will free up a lot of income for tuition.

    I have read Debt Free U and LOVED it. Need to read Is College Worth It?

    Thanks so much.

  4. Annie Kate says:

    You’re very welcome, Laraba!

  5. Amy says:

    So are the loans through the gov. in Canada like they are here (obviously there are also private loans, but the majority are the gov. ones)? Very interesting differences between US and Canada colleges. So do most kids go to college locally and live at home, or do they just get housing off-campus?

    1. Annie Kate says:

      There are government loans here too, but my impression is that we have more restrictions and limitations than you do.

      Quite a few kids choose to live on campus, but many more live in houses and apartments nearby, unless they live close enough to commute from their parent’s place.

      I’ve even heard of parents who buy a house in the student area for their kids to live in and to learn to be landlords to other students; when all the kids are finished college, they sell the house again, for net housing costs of almost zero if the house is large enough to house 5 or 6 students!

      We also don’t seem to have as much pressure to go to ‘the best college’ as seems to be the case in the US–but maybe it seems that way because of whom I spend time with.

  6. Laraba says:

    I just keep commenting because this topic is so interesting!

    That thing about “the best colleges” is profound. Apparently studies show that which college you go to really does NOT matter, if you adjust for natural student ability and diligence. So yes, kids going to Harvard probably do better in general than kids going to a community college, but that’s mostly becuase the Harvard kids are “cream of the crop.” Actually, for the reasons mentioned previously, I don’t think the “big name” colleges always give their undergrads a great education…profs focused on research instead of teaching is one big issue, of course.

    I am so excited that our children are going to grow and learn and be excited about learning instead of jumping through hoops. I will admit I get freaked sometimes reading ALL that your kids are doing. Ours don’t do as much, largely because this mama is frantically chasing babies around and I don’t put the time in that you do. You are doing such an amazing job with your kids, Annie Kate!


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