Bridge program (higher education)

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A Bridge program is a formal partnership between two post-secondary institutions that provides students with advanced standing in a degree program at one institution as recognition of previous academic experience in a similar field of study at another institution. Typically, a bridge program student holds a two-year college degree, and is seeking advancement in their profession by obtaining a four-year or graduate degree.

This differs from Bridging Programs offered by Ontario colleges for newcomers to the country. For example, Humber College in Toronto offers Bridging Programs for Internationally-Trained Engineers and IT Professionals, who are recent immigrants to Canada.[1] These are short-term technical programs offered to professionals who already possess a minimum of a Bachelor's degree. These programs "bridge" the gap between a newcomer's prior experience and their future employment in Canada.

Most bridge programs can be categorized into three types of agreements:[2]

Bilateral: An agreement outlined between two institutions and two specific programs of similar content. Students are permitted to use some of their initial credits toward the completion of another program at the partner institution. Example: Seneca/York Joint Degrees

Multilateral: An agreement between one institution and several institutions that offer related programs of interest. The completion of one program will directly lead to a specific degree program. Example: The completion of any Ontario Public College Recreation and Leisure Services Diploma and entrance to Brock University’s Bachelor of Recreation and Leisure Studies

Concurrent: A collaborative agreement between two institutions, whereby students will work toward two sets of qualifications (such as a diploma and a degree) at the same time, and on the same campus. Example: University of Guelph-Humber.

History of Bridge Programs in Ontario[edit]

The College University Consortium Council (CUCC) was created in 1996 by the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities as an advisory body to help devise direct transfer routes between post-secondary institutions for all Ontario students. Its mission statement specifies that the main objective of the council is to “facilitate, promote and coordinate joint education and training ventures that will: aid the transfer of students from sector to sector; facilitate the creation of joint programs between colleges and universities; and further the development of a more seamless continuum of post-secondary education in Ontario.[3] Membership in the council is voluntary for all post-secondary institutions, but is highly encouraged. While the CUCC aims to help institutions create bridge programs, it still maintains that colleges and universities have full autonomy on the specifics of the agreements created.[4] One of the first projects of the CUCC, was the development of a mutual agreement between Ontario colleges and universities. In 1999, Ontario colleges and universities signed the Ontario College-University Degree Completion Accord (Port Hope Accord), which solidified their commitment to create province-wide agreements to help college graduates enter university programs. This Accord was a monumental achievement, as it explicitly stated that a three year college diploma program should provide a student with a minimum of eleven transfer credits (equivalent to at least 2 years of study) toward a four year bachelor’s degree, and a two year diploma program should allow the student to earn six to eight university transfer credits toward a degree (equivalent to 1 or 1.5 years). These minimum requirements were chosen based on the average amount of transfer credits awarded in the past by Registrars’ Offices across Ontario Universities. Within five years of attaining signatures, forty new college-university agreements were made, providing more opportunities for students to attain a comprehensive education.[5]

By 2005 however, the Bob Rae Report declared that “nowhere near enough progress has been made” because student demand for transfer agreements still overpowered the actual number of diploma to degree programs available. The Report suggested that research must be done to link up related programming between institutions into collaborative degree programs, and create more academic pathways for students to achieve their career goals.[6] It also suggested the creation of core, generic courses offered at all institutions that could be instantly transferable in any Ontario diploma or degree program.[7] The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario was established in the same year as an advisory body to the provincial government, commissioning research on student post-secondary experience and recommendations to improve higher education in Ontario.

To better serve students interested in researching bridge program pathways, the CUCC made information much more accessible by developing the Ontario College-University Transfer Guide, an online resource that lists existing agreements between institutions that is searchable by program interest, as well as a detailed explanation of transfer credits granted in each agreement. This online guide will help to promote existing bridge programs in Ontario by providing students, guidance councillors, academic advisors, and parents a comprehensive source for all possible degree program pathways. As of October 2010, there were 514 agreements listed.[8]

In the attempt to make further progress in Ontario’s credit transfer policies, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities established a new coordinating body in 2011 to replace the CUCC. The Ontario Council for Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT) aims to improve transfer pathways for students by focusing on creating multilateral agreements between institutions to maximize the number of transfer credits earned, and the number of students eligible to enrol in bridge programs. It also pledges to create consistency among programs of similar content in the province to help ease student mobility. ONCAT’s ultimate goal is to create a transfer model framework that grants all college diploma graduates the possibility to begin a degree program without repeating courses of similar content.

Limitations to the Creation of Bridge Programs[edit]

Dualistic post-secondary system[edit]

The Ontario college system was created in 1965 as a solution to the growing number of secondary school graduates who could not be sustained by the current post-secondary system. It was developed as a separate pathway from university, with different secondary school prerequisites, that would ultimately lead students to a distinct set of career choices.[9] Since the inception of the college system, post-secondary education in Ontario has preserved its separate yet parallel tracks, despite changing demands in the workforce. With the shift of the job market toward hiring employees with bachelor or graduate degrees for occupations that previously accepted college diplomas, it is becoming less and less likely for students to enroll in a diploma program if they cannot be guaranteed entry into a bachelor’s program upon completion of their courses.[10] Creating mutually beneficial bridge programs between colleges and universities may prove to be difficult, as both systems were created and have since progressed as completely separate entities with distinct policies and curriculum to meet the needs of their student body.


Through a series of interviews with senior administrators at colleges and universities throughout Ontario, Danielle Renaud began a preliminary study in the year 2000 to discover the major barriers to collaborative programs between post-secondary institutions. A total of twenty-five colleges and eighteen universities were surveyed. The most commonly perceived obstacle to the creation of bridge programs mentioned by both college and university administrators was the existence of elitist attitudes by some university faculty. The college respondents regarded university faculty as “arrogant” and unapproachable, and did not feel confident that their efforts would be positively received. University respondents echoed this statement, admitting that faculty often viewed college programs as a “lesser education” and that this stereotypical mindset would be difficult to overcome.[11] University faculty may be hesitant to approach the subject of collaborative agreements with college diploma programs because they do not view it as a relationship that will benefit the reputation of their own institution. They continue to view colleges in their traditional role as a preparation for the workplace, and feel as though they must protect the integrity of a university education by remaining a separate entity.[12] On the other hand, many college faculty are also fearful of an impending union with universities, as they are concerned that they will be swallowed by the larger institution and lose their voice in the decision making process. They value their programming and presume that the universities will be unwilling to make compromises when it comes to creating program parameters.[13]

Ambiguity of Transfer Credit Process[edit]

The ambiguity of the current transfer situation between colleges and universities does not promote the attainment of higher knowledge in a field of study, as many students feel discouraged to continue in their studies when their prior experience is not always fully recognized at the university level. Most current bridge programs were created out of individual efforts of faculty members in specific departments, separate from the institution as a whole. These idiosyncrasies make the transfer process sometimes difficult, as students must navigate inconsistent admissions policies that do not always work in their favour.[14] In addition, most universities will not tell students how many transfer credits they will receive until they have actually applied to the program. Without a uniform system to assess transfer credits, students have no way of predicting how many transfer credits they will receive at each university, or how their diploma program will prepare them for university studies.[15]

Disparity in Province-wide Curriculum[edit]

One of the largest impediments to creating comprehensive bridge programs is the fact that there is no standardized curriculum between similar diploma and degree programs in the province. Without a specified standard of practice outlined for certain fields of study, it becomes almost impossible to guarantee the same amount of transfer credits at every Ontario institution, as it is likely that a student may not have completed a specific course that a student at another institution was required to take.[16] University officials in Renaud’s study also stated that they did not feel comfortable accepting current college curriculum as an equivalent to the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program. They were concerned with the attained education level of the faculty at college campuses, as not all colleges require instructors to possess a Doctorate Degree, or conduct a minimum amount of research.[17] Although this view can be attributed to the elitist attitudes already discussed above, it does call into question how ONCAT is prepared to roll out consistent transfer policies among institutions without attempting to define definitive credits and features in all fields of study. Colleges and universities may not be open to standardizing the curriculum in their programs, as it would mean that they would need to give up the autonomy they previously enjoyed, and possibly lose distinctive features in their curriculum that helped to recruit students to their specific program.

Willingness to participate[edit]

Although a formalized agreement would result in more transfer applicants, many university officials are less than keen to sign bridge program agreements with colleges, as it would mean a significant loss of tuition dollars. Without the formalized agreement, transfer students receive on average one year or less worth of credits toward a bachelor’s degree. This structure ensures that the student will still likely be enrolled in a university program for at least three years. With the successful creation of province-wide post-secondary agreements, students would attend university for two years, significantly cutting tuition costs. This loss of funding, despite rising enrolment numbers, could result in disaster, as programs could become oversubscribed without adequate financial coverage.[18] There is also a valid concern that only those universities who are in need of more student applications, such as the small to mid-size universities, will be more willing to cooperate with college programs. Larger institutions that already receive an overwhelming number of high school applicants will be less likely to agree to the lengthy process of creating specialized programs when they can already fill their programs without the extra effort.

Future direction[edit]

Once again, Ontario is in the midst of an unprecedented increase in the number of post-secondary student applicants that is threatening to overpopulate the current structure of higher education in the province. It is projected that the number of students enrolled in Ontario post-secondary institutions may increase by 100,000 by the year 2021.[19] Much like the climate of 1965, Ontario needs to find another solution to accommodate the demands of these increasing numbers, and bridge programs may be the ideal way to streamline applicants. Bridge programs still meet the increased interest in a university degree, but provide alternate pathways for achieving this degree that will not exceed first year university enrolment allowances.

A more realistic transition from the dualistic post-secondary pathways that currently exist in Ontario, to a collaborative pathway would be to develop a completely new curriculum for the bridge program, rather than trying to fit together already existing diploma and degree programs that were never meant to be connected. Ad hoc committees based on subject discipline should be formed among college and university faculty across the province to share best practices, and develop an integrated curriculum.[20] In this approach, college and university faculty can work together to create a comprehensive knowledge base that they both believe in, and neither will feel threatened that their existing program will be overshadowed or become obsolete. Having faculty work together to develop curriculum requirements will also hopefully help to abolish stereotypes and the elitist attitudes that were credited as the strongest inhibitor to the creation of bridge programs, and help to build a sense of congeniality among education professionals.[21]

The creation of the Ontario Council for Articulation and Transfer and the online Ontario College-University Transfer Guide was definitely a step in the right direction, however the existing agreements listed have a limited scope of program choice, and do not provide a list of guaranteed college credits that can be transferred. The province needs to move toward creating a universal transfer guide that allows students graduating from a diploma program the ability to transfer to any university with a similar degree program by meeting the same requirements for every institution, and receiving the same amount of transfer credits at each institution. This transfer guide should also be easily accessible by students so that they can make informed choices in their course planning and be informed of the number of transfer credits they can receive before they actually apply to an institution. To initiate a move toward universal transfer, the province can first focus on establishing a few core arts and science courses at the college level that would result in direct transfer to university credit at every Ontario university. College faculty can work in conjunction with university faculty to create course curriculum that is comparable to first year general arts and science credits (such as psychology, English, math, history etc.) that the majority of incoming university students are required to take, thus easing the transition process greatly.[22]

Finally, Ontario should look to the successful practice of post-secondary transfer in other provinces, most notably British Columbia, but also Alberta and New Brunswick, as a framework from which to build a comprehensive transfer program. In these already well-established systems, students are able to transfer credit toward a bachelor’s degree from any institution in the province, and know exactly how many transfer credits they will receive before they officially apply to another institution.[23] While Ontario has a long way to go before reaching this level of compatibility, it can definitely benefit from modeling the degree of government, administrative and faculty coordination evident within the post-secondary systems of the above- mentioned provinces.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Bridging Programs for Internationally Trained Professionals". Humber College. Retrieved 2 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Boggs & Trick, 2009, p.5-8
  3. ^ Renaud, 2009, p. 32
  4. ^ Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, 2008, p.3
  5. ^ Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, 2008, p.2-5
  6. ^ Boggs & Trick, 2009, pg. 1
  7. ^ Decock,McCloy,Liu,& Hu, 2011, p.3
  8. ^ Callahan, 2010, p.6
  9. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.9
  10. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.11
  11. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.74
  12. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.76
  13. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.79
  14. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.3
  15. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.25
  16. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.75
  17. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.85
  18. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.84
  19. ^ Boggs & Trick, 2009, p.9
  20. ^ Arnold, 2009, p.147
  21. ^ Renaud, 2009, p.90
  22. ^ Arnold, 2009, p.122
  23. ^ Arnold, 2009, p.10

Arnold, Christine. (2009). Seamless Higher Education? Sewing a Model for Transfer in Ontario. (Master’s thesis). Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario.

Association of Canadian Community Colleges. (2011). Transferability and Post-secondary Pathways: The Role of Canadian Colleges and Institutes.

Boggs, A. & Trick, D (2009). Making College-University Collaboration Work: Ontario in a National and International Context. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Decock, H., McCloy, U., Liu, S & Hu, B. (2011). The Transfer Experience of Ontario Colleges who Further their Education – An analysis of Ontario’s College Graduate Satisfaction Survey.Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. (2010). Report of the College-University Consortium Council. Toronto, ON: Maureen E. Callahan.

Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. (2008). College/University Programs Leading to Undergraduate Degrees: A Discussion Paper.

Renaud, Danielle. (2000). An Examination of the Barriers to Articulation Agreements Between Colleges and Universities in Ontario. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from the National Library of Canada. (0-612-49863-8).