Why do Americans value their universities so much more than Canadians?

Why do Americans value their universities so much more than Canadians?
I attended graduate school in the college town of college towns: Boston, Mass. Home to 35 post-secondary institutions, you couldn’t hit a Dunkin’ Donuts without running into a gaggle of sweaty college kids.

The better reputation your school had, the more exclusive your social group. Elitism wafted everywhere. When I’d go to public events hosted by Harvard, for example, the vast majority of students looked exactly the same and oozed the same, shall we say, aura of wealth. It was an open secret; the Ivy League was, mostly, for the rich and there was an assumption that donations were made and that legacies were very much a thing.

On one particular flight, from Boston to Toronto, I remember this becoming evident when I was sat next to two Harvard freshmen, both in school sweatpants, sweatshirts, headbands and backpacks, all in signature crimson. They spent the hour-long flight discussing a visit to Martha’s Vineyard with their parents for the holidays and possibly hitting Cape Cod in the summer, and proudly competed over who had skipped more classes that semester. It was a scene out of a movie, but one I’d see play out a dozen more times before I graduated.

When the news came earlier this week that Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and a host of other wealthy Hollywoodites and CEOs had been part of a multi-million-dollar bribery scandal to cheat the college admissions process in efforts to get their children into the best of the best, it wasn’t remotely surprising.

Not that university isn’t a rite of passage for Canadians, or that we’re less educated in any way, but the status attained simply by attending one institution over another has never carried the weight that it does in the U.S. It’s tough to imagine any school in Canada that would even prompt parents to engage in an admissions scandal — maybe McGill? Still, attending classes in Mount Royal doesn’t garner half the breathless glory an American receives when they reveal they went to school in New Haven (Yale!) or Providence (Brown!), both essentially a fast-pass to whatever career their heart desires.

In the U.S., asking someone about their safety school is like asking them about their weight or age. You just don’t do it. Nonetheless, everyone has an answer (and it’s usually a community college — perish the thought). That’s because, there, where you go to school is not so much about the education you receive, but rather the class and status you attain. You want to be able to flaunt that your kid went to one of The Big Three (even if you had to discreetly pay to make it happen); never mind if they even bother to show up to class. As for that kid? They’ve been fed the teen-movie ideal since the ’90s: tailgates, football, parties, homecoming, and did I mention football? You miss college, and you’re slammed with the ultimate FOMO. It’s not only an industry but a fetishized brand. Fred in accounting may have graduated from Stanford over 40 years ago, but he’s probably still wearing his college ring with as much pride now as he did then just so the rest of us know he’s one of them.

That level of choice and elitism makes for a far more rigorous application process; the hoops to jump through seem endless, making it not so much a level of higher education but an exclusive club that some might go as far as bribing their way into. It’s all about satisfying a hunger for that very expensive and privileged American Dream. There are entire programs and courses dedicated to college prep, a world of scholarships, a litany of exams: the SAT, GRE, ACT, the panic over early acceptance. The sheer level of stress seems second only to childbirth.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the first question second school students ask themselves is: should I even go? And then, college or university? We just don’t care, not even half as much. Perhaps that’s because we have a pittance of universities in comparison to even just New England. Legacies are barely a concept, much less the ones that inhabit an Ivy League education. And anyway, there isn’t a massive disparity in tuition fees between, say, University of Toronto or Western.

You could probably cheat and bribe your way somewhere, but why would you?

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