Nefra Faltas faced a choice in her last year at the Potomac School in McLean, Va.

Would she spend her next four years at Oberlin College, the University of Virginia, or the University of Toronto? She leaned toward Toronto. "The campus seems very American, but with a lot more cosmopolitan flavor," says Faltas, now a first-year pre-med student at UT. The clincher: With all costs in, her first-year bill at Oberlin would have been about $29,000; at U.Va., $11,800; and at UT, just $11,200.

For U.S. citizens staggered by higher education costs, Canada's 50 or so undergrad universities may be as welcome as a northern breeze. They are inexpensive as a matter of government policy. And while non-Canadians may pay up to three times what locals do, they'll still save a bundle compared with private U.S. colleges or top-flight state schools--especially with the U.S. dollar strong against the Canadian loonie.

FAMILIAR. The pluses of getting some northern exposure go beyond dollars. Familiar enough culturally--and near enough geographically--to appeal to students reluctant to venture too far abroad, the schools are nonetheless foreign. The highly diverse student populations reflect Canada's role as a magnet for immigrants. Then there's Quebec, where you can study at an English-speaking school such as McGill University while exploring a unique French culture.

Wherever in Canada U.S. students go, they'll find differences from home. "People really are much more polite," says Benjamin Moerman, a political philosophy grad student who came to UT after Harvard Divinity School. Crime is often less of a worry, even in big cities. Canadians may also be more focused academically. One reason: They home in on a major early in high school to prepare for mandatory achievement tests needed for university admission. The tests measure actual academic mastery rather than aptitude.

Athletic programs, meanwhile, are rich--think wide-field football and curling--but not big-time, as in larger U.S. schools. Only Simon Fraser University in Vancouver has teams competing with U.S. schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Athletic scholarships, too, are rare in Eastern Canada.

Costs vary widely. British Columbia lets schools charge heavily for foreigners. So a U.S. student at the University of British Columbia would pay about $16,000 a year. By contrast, the University of Windsor, near Detroit, offers a break just for U.S. students, charging about $7,700.

As for admissions standards, highly selective UT and McGill demand A or B+ averages and high class rankings. Generally, Canadian schools give less weight to Scholastic Assessment Test scores, which aren't even required of Canadians.

Thanks to the Net, research is easy. Most colleges and universities post Web sites. And Maclean's, a newsweekly, publishes rankings of schools each fall ( Canada's Foreign Affairs Dept. offers such info as visa requirements at www.cdnemb-washdc. org/study.

While weighing a Canadian education, bear in mind that an unfamiliar alma mater on a resume may not be a plus when starting a career back home. Even Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, with 41 Rhodes scholars among its grads, may draw blank looks from U.S. employers. Still, for adventuresome, budget-minded students, a Canadian education may be the best bargain on the continent.

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