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Academica: How to improve university access in Ontario and beyond

October 9, 2019

Originally posted on Academica:

It’s no secret that there are gaps in higher education access among different demographic groups in Ontario, as is the case in all of Canada’s provinces and territories. What fewer may know, though, is that these disparities exist far more at the university level than the college level.

Some have suggested that the best way to address this gap is to put more resources into university-based recruitment and support for underrepresented students. But another approach that warrants deep consideration is the enhancement of college-to-university pathways.

“This is really about taking the successes of access at the college level and bringing them to all levels of post-secondary education,” notes Ursula McCloy, Director of the Centre for Research in Student Mobility at Seneca College in Toronto. “Because equity of access is stronger at the college level, we believe that enhancing college-to-university pathways can harness some of this same success to improve equity at the university level.”

To this end, Seneca and Academica Group partnered to learn more about who is accessing the college-to-university student pathway, along with the perceptions and experiences that shape it, especially compared to university students who have no prior post-secondary experience (See Note 1). The project was funded by the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT).

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“Because equity of access is stronger at the college level, we believe that enhancing college-to-university pathways can harness some of this same success to improve equity at the university level.”

Ursula McCloy

Director of the Centre for Research in Student Mobility, Seneca College

The researchers undertook the study in two phases:

Phase 1 – Compare the perceptions and experiences of college applicants who aspired to a degree to those who did not, and compare university applicants who had a previous college credential to those who had no previous post-secondary experience (See Note 2).

Phase 2 – Design an online survey instrument to track the pathways of applicants following their application to post-secondary education. In addition to demographic questions, the survey asked about students’ decision-making process, application outcomes, motivations, post-secondary goals, use of support resources, and the transfer experience (See Note 3).

“In doing this research, we were looking to create a set of profiles for students in each of the different pathways,” notes Claire Henderson, Senior Researcher at Academica Group and co-author of the study alongside McCloy. “We were then able to take these data-based profiles and use them to understand the experiences of college-to-university transfer students, especially compared to students who had entered university with no prior post-secondary.”

These profiles found that when compared to university students with no prior post-secondary education, college-to-university students were:

  • More likely to be from groups traditionally underrepresented in university
  • More likely to participate in classroom discussion and engage in student–faculty interactions
  • More likely to feel certain that their program was right for them and would lead to satisfying career

That said, these same college-to-university students reported some challenges compared to the university students with no prior post-secondary. These college-to-university students were also more likely to:

  • Rely less on traditional sources of information about schools and more on word-of-mouth
  • Report that university orientation programming wasn’t designed with them in mind, and that they were thus less likely to participate
  • Be less engaged in university life outside of the classroom
  • Have more outside responsibilities with less financial support

College students who aspired to a university degree anticipated challenges such as a lack of guidance on application procedures, and lack of clarity related to credit granting processes.

What to do

Based on this study’s findings and the research it has built on, it might seem obvious that Ontario and its institutions should create and expand credit transfer pathways to make it easier for students to access a university education, and that continues to be an important goal. But the study also shows that universities can target orientation programming as a key area to better support students who are making the college-to-university transition, especially when it comes to adjusting to the academic expectations of university.

The study also found that schools should prioritize the creation of new and flexible ways to enrich the non-academic experience for college-to-university students.

Overall, this study built on the findings of previous research suggesting that by increasing the number of students using the college-to-university transfer pathway, Ontario can enhance the diversity of its university student population. Given the high academic engagement of these students, progress in this area will not only improve access across Ontario’s universities, but enhance the university experience for all involved.


1. The full report can be found on the ONCAT website at: 
2. These results were based on a sample of over 125,000 Ontario college and university applicants who participated in Academica’s University and College Applicant Survey (UCAS™) between 2010 and 2015. This included 70,813 survey respondents who had applied to Ontario universities, and 57,839 survey respondents who had applied to Ontario colleges.
3. Of the 3,007 respondents who completed the Phase 2 survey, 1,985 fit the pathways of interest and were eligible to be included in the analysis.

Academica Group

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.