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Exploring Transfer Student Integration: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Ontario Transfer Students

May 2024

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

We used a longitudinal qualitative design to examine the active transfer process, interviewing 56 Ontario college and university students during their first year after transferring institutions (fall 2022 and winter 2023). Our fall interviews captured the experiences of students as they navigated the admissions process and entered new institutions and, in some cases, programs that were substantially different. We then completed second interviews in the winter term to examine how the students were faring. At both time points, our interviews focused on three thematic areas. First, we probed for signs of transfer shock or other difficulties noted in the transfer literature. Second, we asked the students about any resources or services that facilitated their transitions. Third, based on their experiences, we asked our participants to share recommendations for facilitating smoother transitions. By following students during their first year of transferring institutions, we examined the ongoing impacts of transferring institutions and the factors that shaped their ability to thrive academically and socially.


  • Student decisions, experiences, and outcomes

Why it Matters

A sizeable portion of Ontario postsecondary students make use of non-linear mobility pathways. These pathways include college to college, college to university, university to college, university to university, and “swirlers”-- students who attend more than two institutions. 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

Transfer Jolts

Rather than a single or prominent “shock,” we find that students experience a series of “jolts” throughout the pre-, early-, and later-stages of transfer. At the pre-transfer stage, students must navigate new processes (e.g., applications), policies (e.g., transfer credits), and opportunities (e.g., scholarship eligibility) that vary by institution. During the early post-transfer phase, students (understandably) find it difficult to find their academic and social footing at their new institution. While the number and impact of most jolts tends to wane, some academic and social challenges follow students into their second semester. Transfer students' more complicated academic histories can place them on a different sequence from their peers and compromise course selection, timely program completion, and the development of social connections.

Exit and Entrance Strategies

The students in our sample who experienced the most difficulty during the post-transfer stage cite misinformation or misunderstanding about program requirements or the consequences of various actions. These students highlight the potential benefits of clearly communicating “exit” (when leaving one institution) and "entrance" (when entering their new institution) strategies to avoid the type of unwelcome surprises experienced by these students (e.g., co-op ineligibility, being placed on academic probation).  

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.