On Campus

All the right stuff

College students who transfer to university do well

From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings

Kristy Normore, 23, grew up in L’Anse-au-Loup, Nfld., and was one of 16 in her high school’s graduating class. (L’Anse-au-Loup has a population of 600.) She left to attend Memorial University in St. John’s, but found it wasn’t for her. “Some of my classes had over 300 people,” she says. “I absolutely hated it. No one knew your name.” Formerly a straight-A student, Normore found her marks began to drop. After her first year, she went back home and spent the year planning her next move.

Intent on a career in social work, Normore enrolled at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) in Sydney, “one of the best decisions I ever made.” Classes had 30 people—tops. Tuition was cheaper. She got As again. After two years, diploma in hand, Normore transferred to Cape Breton University (CBU), right next to NSCC, into the bachelor of arts community studies (BACS) program. She graduated in June. Starting university the second time, she felt better prepared. “I was used to helping myself. I found it much easier.”

College is the most common form of post-secondary education in Canada, according to Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey, and many college grads will go on to university. Cape Breton University’s BACS program is a popular choice: thanks to an agreement with NSCC and other colleges, those with a two-year diploma can start with 50 per cent of the credits they’d need toward a three-year degree, says assistant professor Barry Moore. Even so, an attitude prevails that college credits aren’t the same as university ones, and that “college graduates aren’t as well-prepared,” Moore says. His research has blown that notion out of the water. In a new unpublished study, Moore found that college students don’t just keep up academically with peers who start off in university; in some cases, they surpass them.

Moore looked at 835 BACS students who took all their credits at Cape Breton University, and another 192 who transferred in from a community college in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Newfoundland, from 2004 to 2010. The average university course grades of the entire cohort was 61 per cent, but when boiled down, he found that those who’d been to community college averaged 70 per cent; non-transfer university students averaged 59 per cent. Those who had been to community college were also more likely to graduate, and less likely to fail, than their peers. Community college transfer students in this program have “better academic outcomes than the students who completed all the courses at the university,” Moore’s study concludes.

The reasons why will be fodder for further research, but Moore has some ideas. “There’s that old adage: nothing succeeds like success,” he says. College transfer students have already had the experience of graduating; they’re often coming to university with a career goal in mind, which is correlated to student achievement. As Normore found, college can offer smaller classes, a way to ease students into a post-secondary life. A college diploma is an asset in its own right, but it can also make a great stepping stone to university. Even so, some people continue to see them as separate—two different destinations, for different students.

Education in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction, and it varies across the country. In Ontario, college and university have typically been treated as “two solitudes,” says Ken Steele, co-founder of Academica Group Inc., a marketing consultancy focused on higher education, whereas in British Columbia or Alberta, “the expectation has been for decades that you can take your first two years at a regional college, and transfer to university to finish your undergraduate.” Credits at Langara College in Vancouver, for example, can be counted towards a B.A. at Simon Fraser University. The Quebec model sees students do a year at CÉGEP before going to university.

Mindful of the job market, more students are recognizing the value of dipping into both pools—college and university—and Canadian institutions are responding with greater collaboration. For example, as of this year, students at North Island College in British Columbia are guaranteed course transfer credits to some programs at the University of Manitoba. The University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, established in 2002, is unique: in four years, students earn both a Humber diploma and a Guelph degree. (Seven different programs are offered.) Humber College alone has transfer arrangements with almost 50 different institutions in Canada and abroad, and offers 21 degree programs, from commerce to interior design.

The province of Ontario is working to make transfer easier as well. In 2011, it announced a new credit transfer system to help students move between colleges and universities, estimating that roughly 4,000 college students there transfer into a university each year. Universities are also collaborating among themselves to a greater extent. Seven Ontario schools—including the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa and Queen’s University—just launched a new initiative that allows students to transfer any first-year arts and science credit from one participating university to another, for general credit.

There isn’t much research on how college transfer students fare in Canadian universities, Moore says, but a 2012 study published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education suggests they’re more than capable. Using data from introductory level courses at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., Jo Stewart and Felice Martinello compared students who transferred in to students who started at Brock. (College grads can earn some transfer credits at Brock with a two- or three-year college diploma and a grade average of 70 per cent or higher; how many credits is determined case by case.) They found that college transfer students do at least as well as their non-transfer peers by some measures, and better by others: those who have trouble in the first term but ultimately persevere “demonstrate better academic performance in their second term than their non-transfer peers.” The paper doesn’t go so far as to examine why, but those students are “a bit older, more experienced and motivated,” says Martinello, an economics professor. “The college transfers who failed first term really pulled their socks up more than [the others], and ended up doing better overall.”

The line between college and university education is blurring somewhat, and Steele thinks the trend is likely to continue. To set up a truly student-focused system, he says, “we’d allow students to assemble a playlist transcript—credits from different institutions— and they’d then get recognition from the government for X amount of work.”

We’re not there now, but students like Normore insist that, for some people, college can be the perfect transition. Normore has applied to Lakehead University, hoping to do her one-year honours bachelor’s degree in social work at the campus in Orillia, Ont. She’s living in Goose Bay, N.L., and expecting her first child next month; she plans to move to Orillia with her fiancé and their child before classes start in the summer. “When I first went to Nova Scotia, I was scared. I didn’t know anyone,” she says. But after having such a good experience at NSCC, and then CBU, she feels prepared for what’s next. “I’m really not worried about going to Lakehead. I’m just excited.”

This was first published online on Nov. 13, 2012.