Terese Schireson was looking for a large college in an urban setting with substantial numbers of international students that wouldn't force her to go deep in debt.

The Rosemont native found the perfect fit in beautiful, cosmopolitan Montreal.

She'll graduate in the spring from McGill University - where tuition, fees, and room and board run about $21,000 a year - debt-free and with a degree in Hispanic studies and Italian.

"The quality of education I'm getting is the same as a school where I would pay $50,000 a year," said Schireson, 21, a graduate of the private Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. "I feel like people don't realize that this is just a few hundred miles north."

More American students are finding worth in Canada's higher-education system, where costs are lower than many private schools in the United States and in some cases similar to costs at flagship state schools, such as Pennsylvania State and Rutgers Universities.

During the last decade, the number of American students at Canadian universities has more than doubled, says the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, to 8,200 in 2007-08, up from 3,312 a decade ago.

The Canadian Embassy in Washington expects there will be as many as 10,000 this year, making the United States the second-largest exporter of students to Canada behind China.

Canadian colleges are recruiting more aggressively; last week they launched a five-city tour in Baltimore.

For the first time, they're coming as a group to the Philadelphia area. Seventeen universities, including the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, will hold an event today in King of Prussia.

The recruiting effort involves an increasing number of schools. Twelve years ago, only 10 Canadian colleges enrolled 50 or more U.S. students and only three had 100 or more, according to the Canadian Embassy. Now, 31 schools have 50 or more and 14 of them have 100 or more.

"There is a recognition that this is an important market for our universities, given the proximity," said Pari Johnston, director of international relations at the Canadian college association's Ottawa office. "Our universities can offer a high quality, affordable education to American students."

The Canadian Embassy, which is organizing the recruiting fairs, targeted the Philadelphia area because "we thought it seemed like a good market with a lot of intelligent students," said Alexander Leipziger, program associate.

The fairs - open to parents, students, and guidance counselors - will also be held in Boston, Minneapolis, and Stamford, Conn.

The higher-education system in Canada is largely publicly funded. The government covers about 60 percent of operational costs for the country's 94 public universities.

The U.S. higher-education system is much larger, with 2,500 four-year, nonprofit universities. Canada sends 28,000 students to U.S. colleges.

One of the biggest challenges Canadian universities face is lack of knowledge about them, said David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. But as the United States becomes more global, he expects students increasingly will look for options outside the country.

"There still is an information or understanding gap to be bridged, but I'd say that gap is getting smaller," he said.

Even though international students pay more than Canadians, cost can be the attraction.

The University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto are among the most expensive in Canada, with tuition and room-and-board costs topping $30,000, but are still cheaper than a private school such as Villanova, where annual costs are pushing $50,000. Other, lesser-known Canadian schools are well under $20,000.

Canadian colleges also offer need-based and merit aid, although not as much as universities in the United States. And U.S. families can use college-savings plans and get federal student loans.

The University of British Columbia in Vancouver designates $3 million in aid for international students. "We're interested in broadening our connections across the United States," said Aaron Andersen, a recruitment manager. The university enrolls about 800 undergraduate students from the United States and 400 graduate students, up 42 percent from 2004, he said.

The admission process for Canadian schools is simpler. Most base admission on high school grades; some also require SAT/ACT scores of U.S. students. There is no arduous essay or interview process.

"I know that's one of the things that attracts American students to McGill. You don't have to go through that hypercompetitive process," said Leonard Moore, an American and professor of American history at McGill.

There are some notable differences in the Canadian system: Greek life and some varsity sports, like football and basketball, aren't prevalent. The drinking age is 18, so students can drink in bars.

Some students are chilled by the sub-zero winter temperatures.

"Once February comes, you're just ready for it to end," Schireson said.

But she said the pluses outweigh the cold. She loves the diversity on campus: "I meet people from all over."

More than 18 percent of McGill's 34,200 graduate and undergraduate students are international, one of the largest proportions of any school in North America.

About 7 percent, or 2,248, of those students are from the United States.

Becca Weber, a graduate of Conestoga High School, also was looking for diversity, and she enjoys winter. So the farther north, the better.

"That's initially how I found McGill," said Weber, a freshman majoring in Middle Eastern studies. "Then I looked into it, and they had these amazing classes."

She's taking, for example, "Judaism and the Occult," which she described as "a new spin on what I've been learning about for the last 12 years in Hebrew school."

McGill is among the most competitive schools for entrance in Canada, with a median GPA of 91 percent for incoming Canadian students, said Kim Bartlett, director of admissions and recruitment.

The University of Waterloo, an hour west of Toronto, is known for its high-tech expertise and boasts the founder of the BlackBerry as a graduate.

Waterloo has been more interested in luring American students because they've become better prepared academically, said Julie Hummel, associate director of marketing and undergraduate recruitment. Previously, American students didn't stack up to Canadians with the same grades. "We'll be able to make more offers of admission."

If You Go

Event: Canadian college recruiting fair.

Date: Today.

Hours: 7 to 9 a.m. and

7 to 9 p.m.

Location: Radisson Valley Forge, 1160 First Ave., King of Prussia.

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Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.