Students’ Perspectives on Switching Universities

As another school year begins, many high school students in their final year will have to start thinking about what pathways they want to take after graduation.  In a few months, many of these students will apply to a few (or many) post-secondary programs, and then wait hopefully for their acceptance. In an ideal world, each student will receive an acceptance from their dream school, finish their desired program on time, graduate, and move on into the next chapter of their life. But, of course, this smooth transition is not always the case. Students change their minds, switch programs, and even switch their educational careers entirely!

Student mobility and credit transfer within Ontario’s post-secondary system has become an increasingly important area of inquiry. While more research is being conducted to monitor current trends, robust information on the topic is limited.  Additionally, the transfer process itself can be difficult for many students who switch institutions or programs. Some students are left having to take time off or repeating courses. While transfer can be a positive and chosen experience for many students, some students wish they had attended the “right” program from the start. Addressing some of the root causes that create conditions where a student feels they must transfer programs or drop courses should be addressed so that Ontario students can be better supported.  

In Norway, efforts to mediate complications and improve the overall transfer system were implemented in 2003. A study conducted on the Norwegian post-secondary system determined that the program transfer rate of students was significantly lowered after the Higher Education Quality Reform. The reform involved changes to the structure of teaching and assessments,  including shorter course lengths, more frequent examinations, and more written assignments. The motivation for implementing these changes was that the program outlines that set out clear goals had lower dropout rate than less structured programs. As a result, with more structured programs and program descriptions, students gained more information about potential programs and career pathways and therefore were less likely to switch partway through. [1]

In my opinion, the Ontario post-secondary school system currently faces many of the challenges that the Norwegian system addressed. High school students may not fully understand their prospective program. Consequently, partway through their degree, they may realize it doesn’t align with their post-graduation aspirations.

I spoke to two students about their transfer experiences to capture some of these issues and highlight how the transfer process can look like in Ontario.  

First, I spoke with Joe, a student who was very involved in high school and was interested in studying business. Joe chose to switch from Wilfrid Laurier’s Bachelor of Business Administration program to Queen’s University’s Bachelor of Commerce after only 4 months at Laurier.

Q: Why did you choose to switch?
A: I switched because I like Kingston as a city better and although they're similar programs they do have their differences. In general, I liked the campus, city and opportunities better at Queen’s.

Q: What was the hardest part of the switch?
A: The hardest part was making sure I was eligible and going through the whole process.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is unhappy in their current program or at their current school?
A: I'd like to say something cheesy like follow your heart but everyone has a different situation and some kids I'm sure have a harder situation than me, like not having their parent’s support. I'd say make absolutely sure that you do want to switch because it’s kind of an ordeal, so just be certain.

I also spoke with Nick, who swam and played piano competitively in high school. After high school, he had his heart set on studying at McGill University. However, after 3 years he chose to transfer from Computer Engineering at McGill to Software Engineering at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).

Q: Why did you choose to switch?
A: I chose to switch for a variety of reasons. I found McGill an extremely impersonal university. As someone who went to private school for many years and found even high school classes of 30-ish people to be a lot, I found it difficult to be sitting in an individual class of 400 people. I also found myself very isolated in Montreal, particularly from some high school friends who I'm still very close to. I had to make a 14 hour round trip to see my girlfriend, which was very hard on both of us. UOIT also offered me different things from McGill. It has more design-oriented classes within the program, and the program itself doesn't include many of the things I didn't enjoy from my Computer Engineering program (mainly circuits).

Q: Were your parents/guardians supportive of you during this process?
A: My father was very supportive of me. He told me that if I wasn't happy in Montreal, which I wasn't, then it didn't make any sense to continue there given that there were other options available. My mother was not supportive. She said that getting a degree from McGill meant a lot more than getting one from a university like UOIT which has had a very short amount of time to make a name for itself.

Q: Would you do anything differently if given the chance?
A: I would have started the application process earlier. The more time, the less stress.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is unhappy in their current program or at their current school?
A: If you're unhappy, it doesn't make sense to keep doing things that make you unhappy. I always thought of switching universities as this huge obstacle, given how important a decision it is, but it really wasn't that hard to get through the process.

Lastly, I spoke to Nathan who is currently the VP Operations of his school’s accounting society and has a strong interest in physical fitness. Nathan transferred from Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo to Commerce at University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).

Q: Why did you choose to switch?
A: Electrical Engineering (and all other tech fields) seem to be becoming more and more competitive and requires a level of interest in the field that extends far beyond academics and school. Employers expect students to be passionate about their field, and code/program/tinker with electronics as a hobby. I didn't have this intrinsic interest in the field and I couldn't envision any scenario where I got a job doing engineering work, let alone enjoying it.  

Q: What was the hardest part of the switch?
A: The most difficult part of the switch was being accepted to a new university. When you reapply to a new program, your high school marks are disregarded. UOIT is quite an exception, as they only review high school marks when considering your application from a different institution.  

Q: Would you do anything differently if given the chance?
A: Yes. I wish I had considered smaller, possibly more remote schools like UOIT sooner, as they are more likely to have lenient admissions requirements. In the end, having a particular degree is vastly more important than where you got it from.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is unhappy in their current program or at their current school?
A: I think I managed the switch well enough, and I have several pieces of advice.  

  1. Don't rush into the switch - you can lose a lot of time by making more than one wrong decision. There is nothing bad about switching paths once or twice, but more and more students are getting trapped in a state of perpetual indecisiveness looking for the perfect solution and never finding it. This results in people taking progressively longer to finish school and get on with other things. Take a year off to work, do research, and talk to people about options.
  2. Consider options other than university. The purpose of going to school is ultimately to secure a good job that pays better than what you'd find otherwise. The reality is that not everyone is geared for university, and you can make plenty of money through work that does not require a university degree. There are skilled trades, emergency services roles, and positions that can be obtained with a college diploma that can earn just as much if not more money than many of the jobs people get after graduating university, and in preparing for those alternative jobs, one will incur less debt and begin their career several years earlier. Not everyone who graduates university makes six figures, even well into their careers.  
  3. I switched into an Accounting program. Without being too biased, I would recommend pursuing the Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation as an excellent 'default' option for those students who really have no idea what field they are interested in, but are willing to work hard. It is a designation that offers a range of career options afterwards (accounting obviously, management, starting one's own business, work involving international travel, any other financial services industry work...). It also provides an extremely streamlined, linear career path. There are a set of well-defined steps that if followed, will certainly get you where you want to be. Being successful during the school portion and initial post-undergrad employment seem to require very little deliberation compared to other programs - though they certainly will require their fair share of hard work.  

My conversations with Joe, Nick and Nathan on their transfer experiences reiterated that is a very personal decision. It is difficult to switch your direction when you have already invested time into a program. However, it is not worth your own unhappiness. If you are considering transferring, contact an advisor at your prospective school who can guide you through the application and credit transfer process.

Lean on those who have gone through the process and don’t be scared to ask questions! Ontario still has a long way to go in helping students navigate through the transfer system and it’s important that our province draw lessons from countries like Norway and build a system that can support potential and current students.

If you're considering a change, be sure to visit . It's a free website that allows you to connect with transfer advisors and search transfer pathways between all 45 publicly assisted colleges and universities in Ontario. The service is provided by the Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT), and funded by the Government of Ontario.

[1] Hovdhaugen, E. (2011). Do structured study programmes lead to lower rates of dropout and student transfer from university? Irish Educational Studies, 237-251.