College to University Pathways: What are the Limits to Social Mobility?

January 24, 2017   |   PEW Team Research

by Edmund Adam, M.Ed.

In Ontario, as in many jurisdictions, the expansion of higher education is justified in part as a strategy to promote equity, social inclusion and social mobility. Given that lower-income and first-generation students are more likely to enrol in a college for their first credential, effective transitions to university programs are an important part of Ontario’s strategy to increase equitable access to higher level credentials (Wheelahan et al., 2015).

This strategy appears sound, but also relies on the assumption that all universities are created equal. However, as ranking systems have led to global positional competition among universities for elite status and students (Hazelkorn, 2011; Marginson, 2006), it is increasingly the case that institutional rankings can act as barriers to students seeking credentials in advanced professional and graduate degree levels.

In my master’s degree program at OISE, I posed the question of whether the stratification of universities through various ranking systems might constitute a challenge to equitable access, and thus require more attention on the part of policy makers. To examine the theory in the Ontario provincial context, I used publicly available student enrolment data to compare the extent to which college transfer students were admitted among differently ranked Ontario universities. Drawing on the same university classifications used by Maclean’s rankings, I identified six highly ranked universities according to U15 membership, and fourteen universities that were not U15 members.  The U15 group includes Canada’s leading research universities. These are generally but not exclusively the oldest institutions. These universities house a broad range of graduate programmes and research, as well as professional schools. Ontario has six of these universities. These include, in alphabetical order, McMaster University, Queen’s University, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, University of Western Ontario (now Western University).

Previous literature has proposed that universities in Ontario are not particularly selective at the undergraduate level (Fallis, 2013). However, this study shows that status impacts the selection criteria that universities set for incoming students. Top ranked universities on Maclean’s table (Medical Doctoral) tend to prefer school leavers (that is, student coming directly to university from high school) to transfer students from colleges. The following table shows that Ontario transfer students are less likely to transfer in to research-intensive institutions: those universities that are members of the U15, and more highly recognized in global rankings.

Institution Admitted on the Basis of College Total Bachelor Commencers % Commencers Who Are Transfers
Medical Doctoral 1,146 34,413 3.3%
Comprehensive 2,708 38,788 7%
Primarily Undergraduate 1,432 7,562 19%
Total 5,286 80,763 6.5%

At comprehensive institutions, admission ratios are one transfer student for every 2.1 school leavers (i.e. students entering directing from high school). At medical/doctoral institutions, that ratio climbs to one transfer student for every 5.7 students who are admitted coming out of high school. While the study sample is small and does not pin down the numbers of transfer students from colleges, it does yield a provocative pattern, worthy of further investigation with larger numbers.

Do Transfer Pathways Level the Playing Field?

My findings suggest that while college to university pathways offer opportunities for college students to study for a bachelor’s degree, they may not provide them with much access to the most prestigious universities, thus reinforcing traditional hierarchies in post-secondary education.


Fallis, G. (2013). Further differentiation of the binary system. In J. S. Levin, & S. Kater (Eds.), Understanding community colleges (pp. 245-262). Ney York: Routledge.

Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Rankings and the reshaping of higher education. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marginson, S. (2006). Dynamics of national and global competition in higher education. Higher Education, 52(1), 1-39.

Wheelahan, L., G. Moodie, E. Lavinge, J. Yang, A. Brijmohan, & Childs, R. (2015). Pathways to education and work in Ontario and Canada. Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund (OHCRIF). Ontario.

Edmund is a doctoral student in the Department of Leadership, Adult and Higher Education, and a member of the PEW Research Team.