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The Hidden Cost of Transfer: A Qualitative Examination of Ontario Transfer Students

May 2024

Authors: Janice Aurini (University of Waterloo), Emerson LaCroix (University of Waterloo), Vanessa Iafolla (University of Waterloo)

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Executive Summary

This report is part of a series. To read the second article affiliated with this report, click here.

In this brief, interviews and focus groups provide further insight into some of the more hidden costs of transfer. We report the findings from focus groups (with 51 students) and longitudinal interviews (107 interviews with 56 students) conducted with transfer students attending two colleges and three universities in Ontario. The focus groups were conducted in the spring and fall of 2022 to capture students’ retrospective and current transfer experiences, while our longitudinal interviews captured incoming transfer students’ experiences over the 2022–2023 school year. We asked participants to discuss their educational histories and trajectories, the circumstances that informed their pathways, and their experiences navigating the transfer process. By design, our study participants included students travelling along five pathways— namely, university-to-university, university-to-college, college-to-college, college-to-university, and students who have swirled between two or more institutions.


  • Student decisions, experiences, and outcomes

Why it Matters

A sizable portion of Ontario postsecondary students make use of non-linear mobility pathways. Ideally, these pathways allow students to accumulate credentials and move seamlessly across the sector. However, Ontario’s current system was not established with mobility in mind. Numerous studies have documented difficulties experienced by transfer students, ranging from delayed completion times, financial struggles, and academic and social “shocks.” This study makes the case for further contextualizing and broadening our understanding of costs associated with student mobility and considers how to minimize them.

Key Findings

Contextualizing Risk

Longer completion times are frequently cited in the literature as a by-product, in part, of the lack formal pathways between institutions (e.g., 2+2 pathways) and is an indication that transfer students are more “at risk.” Limiting credit loss is seen to streamline the transfer process and reduce inefficiencies while also improving students' completion time. However, even when “leaky pathways” are closed, they do not always improve transfer students’ academic pathways.  Transfer students’ overall postsecondary journey may be lengthened if transfer credits do not satisfy new program requirements, if new programs are rigidly scaffolded, or if they enter programs that are substantively different from their past academic work. Transfer students may also need to catch up on pre-requisites or other program requirements (e.g., placement hours), and the desire to “start fresh” discourages some students from seeking out transfer credits or advanced standing in their new program.

Hidden Costs

Our participants point to other, less acknowledged, costs associated with transferring postsecondary institutions. Transfer credits do not always generate efficiencies for students, particularly if they do not satisfy current program requirements or if they compromise academic (e.g., co-operative education) or financial opportunities (e.g., scholarships). Past missteps sometimes follow students into their new institutions and students describe feeling “caught in the middle” academically and socially.

Transfer Motivations

Our findings support claims that transfer is part of a mature decision-making process. Rather than being pushed out of their previous institutions and programs, the transfer students in our sample made rational decisions with happiness and career motivations in mind.

Post-Transfer Appraisals

The participants in our sample experienced a variety of academic and social jolts throughout the transfer journey. However, these challenges did not prevent them from identifying with their program and few participants regretted their transfer decisions. Participants described their new institutions as transfer friendly and noted faculty and staff who were supportive and helpful. Importantly, students who had the smoothest transitions parroted the advice provided by earlier qualitative Canadian studies, adding weight to these initial insights. Our students, for example, emphasized the benefits of providing students with transparent, accurate and timely information (e.g., early transfer assessments). Our findings also suggest that transfer students require some additional advising to account for their unique circumstances and need to "catch up." They also desire opportunities to connect with other transfer students who more closely share their needs, experiences, and goals.