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Program Non-Completion and Postsecondary Credential Accumulation Pathways Across Canadian Provinces

November 2023

Authors: Xavier St-Denis and Yacine Boujija (Institut national de la recherche scientifique)

Project photo

Executive Summary

The pathway to graduation from a postsecondary education (PSE) program is not always a linear one for Canadian students. Research is now investigating these pathways and their impact on individuals. In previous research, the authors of this study discovered that the level of a person’s first postsecondary credential has a strong influence on whether he or she will pursue further postsecondary education and at what level. Specifically, individuals who first pursue a credential below a bachelor’s degree have a lower probability of completing a second credential compared to those who complete a bachelor’s degree.

They also discovered that linear postsecondary pathways are associated with significant earnings premiums. For example, individuals who have attained the same credential but took different routes to get there can have different earnings depending on the pathway.

This study continues to investigate the impact of taking non-linear pathways. In this report, the authors ask whether dropping out or non-completion episodes in early PSE pathways are related to specific credential accumulation pathways.


  • Student decisions, experiences, and outcomes

Why it Matters

Postsecondary students who drop out or otherwise interrupt their first program of study have received some level of attention recently. Importantly, postsecondary education stakeholders have focused on interventions that can facilitate graduation.

In our report, we shed light on what happens to students who did not complete their first program of study but subsequently succeed in graduating from another program. We show that students in this situation face substantial disadvantages in terms of access to graduate programs and of graduation from a second PSE program in general. We argue that interventions should aim to address this issue because the accumulation of multiple PSE credential tends to be associated with large earnings premiums.

Key Findings

Our results show that having an incomplete spell in PSE prior to a person completing their first PSE credential (e.g., dropping out or interrupting attendance in a program for another reason) is fairly common. It is also associated with a lower probability of completing a second credential. This is especially true in Ontario and for graduates of programs below the bachelor’s level.

Key Finding #1: Almost half of all students have an incomplete spell during their first PSE program.

In Ontario, approximately 40 percent of individuals born between 1981 and 1988 who undertook PSE did not graduate from their first program of study. About half eventually completed another program before they were 27 years old. The results are very similar for Canada overall.

As a result, 22 percent of individuals who participated in PSE between the ages of 18 and 27 years old did not complete any certificate, diploma, or degree (19 percent in Canada).

Figure 1. Pathways to graduation from a PSE program among Ontario residents who attended PSE for at least one year between 18 and 27 years old. 

Key Finding #2: Students who have an incomplete spell before obtaining their first credential are less likely to obtain a second credential.

Students who dropped out of their first postsecondary program are significantly less likely to obtain more than one credential. Furthermore, these students are less likely to ever register in a second PSE program.

Unfortunately, this finding is especially pronounced in Ontario, where only 20 percent of those who have a prior incomplete spell during their first credential obtain a second credential. The gap is even stronger among those who graduate from a bachelor’s program as their first credential.

Figure 2. Probability of graduating from a second PSE program by 27 years old depending on the pathway to the first credential (linear or with incomplete spell).

Implications and Recommendations

In summary, a large group of students who enter their first PSE program do not graduate from that program. Many of them do not subsequently graduate from any other program. This latter group may especially benefit from new transfer programs, including interventions accommodating students who drop out. Overall, students who interrupt the first PSE program they ever attend seem to suffer from long-term disadvantages in the PSE system.

Two areas of intervention may help increase the rate of graduation from a second PSE program among this group of students:

  1. Ensure that transfer and other programs facilitate timely graduation despite non-linear pathways. In fact, the existing evidence suggests that time to graduation is significantly longer for transfer students relative to non-transfer students.
  2. Conduct further research to identify the predictive factors that lead to dropping out and what interventions (including transfer) could prevent non-completion and better program alignment.