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Why Students Transfer: Early Findings from a Longitudinal Study of Transfer Students in Ontario

March 21, 2023 Authors: Nicolas Boileau, Researcher

In the postsecondary sector, deficit thinking and narratives about transfer students are unfortunately common. For example, some university faculty members think of college-to-university transfer students as less prepared for university education than students that enter university straight after high school. In contrast, through interviews with transfer students, I have been learning that prospective transfer students possess three important strengths —they are ambitious, resourceful, and strategic1.


Since 2015, ONCAT has been regularly collecting data on Ontario transfer students’ experiences and decision making. Our most recent project of this type, which launched in September 2021, is a longitudinal mixed-methods study. The first stage consists of a survey on the intentions/plans of prospective transfer students2 in Ontario and a follow-up interview with a subset of the participants. The goal of this stage of the study is to understand where prospective transfer students are considering transferring from and to, their reasons for transferring (in general and to specific institutions and programs), and the sources of information that they consult. The survey also includes questions about participants’ sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender identity, racial-ethnic identity, ability status, parental level of education, and annual income). Such items were included to allow researchers to investigate whether and how prospective transfer students’ sociodemographic characteristics are associated with their plans, reasons for transferring, and sought information. The interviews were designed to provide complementary information, for example, about how prospective transfer students weigh the various factors that influence their choices about whether and where to transfer and what they hoped to learn from each of the sources of information that they consult.

To date, we have received over 2,500 survey responses and will continue to collect data until August 2023. We also completed 51 interviews, between February and July 2022. In this post, I share some of what I have learned through my initial review of the transcripts—the first stage of our systematic analysis that led me to suggest that prospective transfer students are ambitious, strategic, and resourceful.

Prospective transfer students are ambitious—they have big academic and career goals

Many prospective transfer students are ambitious in both their academic and/or career goals. In terms of their academic goals, many prospective transfer students are interested in competitive academic programs, like engineering and business. Some are interested in eventually completing graduate studies, such as an Ontario College Graduate Certificate, master’s degree, or even doctoral degree.

In terms of their career goals, many prospective transfer students choose their academic programs based on their understanding of the current job market. In particular, many prospective transfer students who are completing, or previously completed, a college diploma or advanced diploma in a given field consider transferring into a bachelor’s degree program in the same field after learning that this would provide them with access to higher-paying jobs and/or more job options. Similarly, some prospective transfer students consider transferring into fields that are more in demand than their current field of study or work (e.g., human resources and computer science) with the expectation that doing so will increase the probability of steady employment after graduation. However, other prospective transfer students are motivated to change fields by their ambition to pursue a meaningful career.

Prospective transfer students are resourceful—they consult many sources of information while they consider transferring

Many prospective transfer students are resourceful in that they query several sources of information that they deem relevant to their decisions about whether and where to transfer. These resources include institutional resources, such as their sending institution’s website, their potential receiving institutions’ websites, guidance counselors, admissions staff, transfer advisors, faculty, and—a transfer and pathway guide for Ontario students, developed and maintained by ONCAT. But they also include social resources, such as family, friends, and colleagues, people currently or previously enrolled in their sending and/or potential receiving programs, and social media platforms (e.g., Reddit, LinkedIn, YouTube, WeChat).

Interestingly, prospective transfer students differ in the extent to which they trust social resources. For example, while some students take information on Reddit as hypotheses that need to be tested against information available through institutions’ websites or staff, others take information on Reddit as sufficient for making their decisions about whether and where to transfer.

Prospective transfer students also differ in the ways that they interact with these resources: Some passively consume publicly-available information, while others request additional information. For example, some prospective transfer students read information available on institutions’ websites and Reddit posts, while others speak with department staff and post questions on Reddit.

Last, through this research, we are learning that prospective transfer students seek various types of information from the resources that they consult. For example, (as one might expect) many prospective transfer students seek information on the process of transferring into each of their potential receiving institutions and programs, including how to obtain credits for their prior education and/or work. However, some also seek information on their potential receiving programs’ admissions requirements, industry connections, the quality of its instructors, and its students’ labour market outcomes, as well as the institutions’ campus climate and the diversity of their student populations.

Prospective transfer students are strategic—they weigh the costs and benefits of various options

Many prospective transfer students are strategic in the sense that they consider various factors when deciding whether and where to transfer. As one might expect, one of those factors is financial cost. In particular, many participants mentioned two types of financial cost: cost of education (e.g., tuition and books) and cost of living (e.g., housing/rent and food).

Most of those participants noted that cost of education is offset by transfer credits and that they were therefore more attracted to programs that they expected would offer them substantially more transfer credit3. In terms of living expenses, one participant noted that the institutions they were considering transferring to were restricted by the cost of housing/rent in their geographical location (specifically, that they were only looking at institutions in Northern Ontario because housing/rent was too expensive elsewhere in the province). Other participants mentioned that they were only considering transferring to an institution near where their parents live, or preferred such institutions, because that would allow them to live with their parents and thereby save money. One of those participants noted that living with their parents would also be good for their mental health, as they felt isolated while living on their university campus after most students moved home during the pandemic.

Regardless of whether they lived with their parents, location was also deemed important by some participants who described commute time as reducing the amount of time they could spend studying or working. Some participants also noted that this is why they preferred institutions and programs that offered online education.

As noted above, other factors that students considered were program characteristics (e.g., a program's required GPA, how challenging it would be, its industry connections, the quality of its instructors, and its students’ labour market outcomes) and institution characteristics (in particular, an institution's academic reputation and campus climate, as well as the diversity of its student population).

Participants also mentioned reasons why they were exclusively looking to transfer to either a college or a university. Many participants who were considering college programs explained that they were doing so because they hoped to gain knowledge and skills that would be directly relevant to their future careers. Some participants who were considering university programs explained that they were doing so because they wanted to gain a deep understanding of their discipline. Others explained that they were only considering university programs due to parental or cultural expectations.

Last, some participants explained that they planned to transfer from a university to a college, then back to a university after completing their college program. Some of them explained that they transferred to a college, or planned to transfer to a college, because they lacked study skills that they deemed necessary to succeed in university and believed colleges could help them develop those skills. Some of them explained that they transferred to a college, or planned to transfer to a college, because they did not like what they were studying in university, but didn’t know what else to study. They similarly thought college could help them figure this out.


As noted at the beginning of this post, it is important to understand and highlight transfer students’ strengths because deficit thinking and narratives about them are common. More generally, it is important to understand their goals, experiences, and decision-making, as it is typically not until we understand people that we can best support them. Along those lines, over the coming months, ONCAT will continue to contribute to these understandings through our ongoing longitudinal mixed-methods study.

Stay tuned for a series of reports from this study and news about the next steps in our research project!



1 To be clear, in stating this, I am not claiming that all prospective transfer students possess all three of these strengths. I am simply suggesting that the vast majority—in fact, every one of our participants—possess one or more of these traits, which is nonetheless important to state.

2 Specifically, people who were enrolled in an Ontario postsecondary program (at a college, university, or Indigenous Institute) when they were invited to participate in the survey, as well as people who had previously been enrolled in an Ontario postsecondary program and were now considering enrolling in a different one.

3 Some participants were also interested in transfer credits because they want recognition for their prior learning (in school or at work) and/or because felt that it is a waste of time to learn the same thing twice.