Header image: students at post-secondary institution

OSAP: A new financial aid calculator

The new OSAP online application launched a few weeks ago. This post is the first in a series looking at the journey of OSAP’s digital transformation, and how we got to where we are now.

Improving access to postsecondary education is an important part of the work we’re doing in the Ontario government. Knowing that cost is often a barrier to pursuing higher education, the last provincial budget announced significant increases to financial aid; understanding just how that aid applies to each individual prospective student, however, was a greater challenge.

That’s where we thought digital could help: how could we make it easier for prospective post-secondary students to learn just how much aid they could receive, and how affordable school could be?

Prior to the announcement about the increases to financial aid, an online tool to help students estimate their aid package already existed; through analytics and user testing, we discovered that, in many cases, students either didn’t complete the full workflow, or were frustrated throughout the process. The reasons were obvious: the previous online form, while a valuable tool, had too many questions, required a lot of decisions about future study plans — decisions that aren’t often clear in high school — and academic programs, and needed a refresh of the user interface to make it easier to understand and use.

Last year, we began working with the OSAP team in the Ministry of Advanced Skills Development (MAESD) to create a simpler tool for the 2017–2018 school year that reflected the new aid increases and made the tool easier and faster to use. We heard from students and parents that an “aid estimator” didn’t need to be exact, but instead give a rough sense of affordability, and we based our approach for the new tool on that reality.

Capturing the right information

The OSAP team at MAESD first set out to look at all the factors that could influence a good estimate of financial aid. Since we were aiming for an estimate that students could use for planning for their future, we knew that there was some information we needed to collect, but there was a lot more that could wait until the actual application.

After reviewing all the factors that determine aid, the OSAP team was able boil them down to a few core assumptions (e.g. full-time rather than part-time studies) and a handful of questions that account for the biggest differences in the amount of aid. The team created a handy flowchart showing how the estimation process could work, and we began to work together to turn that process into a digital experience.

OSAP Calculator Flowchart

Upon first blush, the flowchart can seem pretty complicated, but if you look closely, you notice very quickly that a lot of the questions are the same. For example, the question asking for a student’s income is repeated in five different scenarios. Realizing this, we decided to see if we could ask all the questions together — as well as a financial aid estimate, on the same page, in real time — without the need to go through a multitude of steps.

Here’s a first mockup of how we attempted to do that. (We used fictitious numbers for the original mockups.)

Early mockup of OSAP Calculator

The rationale to include everything on one page was easy: more steps meant more opportunities for frustration, and more opportunities for students and parents to stop filling out the form and not accomplish what they had set out to do.

The mockup above was our first step to get everything on one page, and while we iterated on it quite a bit, the final product (you can visit the new calculator on the OSAP home page) isn’t far from that first idea.

Presenting information simply

We learned a lot through this project, and one of the most important things we learned was that OSAP is actually an umbrella program: when you apply for OSAP, you are actually applying for a lot of separate funding programs from both the provincial and federal governments. Some of these funding programs are grants, and some are loans — important information to know as you plan your journey into post-secondary education.

Along with an estimate of how much financial aid would be a loan and how much would be a grant, there was a lot of other information we thought students and parents might want to know once they get their estimate:

  • the assumptions being made in the estimate
  • the factors that were being excluded from the calculation
  • the estimated breakdown between grants and loans
  • the estimated costs of school, for comparison
  • the estimated portions of school costs which OSAP will cover

Determining which information to include was a first challenge; figuring out how to present all that information in an easy-to-understand way was another. On top of that, we had to figure out how to make it small enough to embed into the OSAP homepage, all while making sure not to detract from the primary reason people visit the page: to log into OSAP to apply and manage their account.

The ministry OSAP team and the Ontario.ca user experience, content, and strategy teams worked together to tackle this challenge. We designed a number of variations, went through a lot of iterations, and did both informal and formal usability testing. We used Skype to test a functional mockup with a handful of high school students across the province, and took a paper mockup around to some parents to see how they would interact with it, as well.

The user testing led to some really great insight, some of which included:

  • We had to rewrite the questions many times so that they made sense to both students and parents; phrases like “my income” meant different things depending on who was filling out the form. We ended up using questions from a student’s perspective, as our testing showed that parents were receptive to that phrasing, as well.
  • We found that there was a large range in how well-understood certain concepts were, such as the difference between grants and loans, and the role of OSAP itself. Many students didn’t know their parents’ income, or why that even mattered if parents weren’t helping pay for school. Additionally, students had a lot of questions about how different family situations would affect their financial aid estimate. These questions helped us shape the presentation of information in the form as well as in the estimate.

One early idea I had targeted those students who might still be undecided as to what type of school (university, college, or private career college) to attend. Instead of asking for that information up front, what if we could present all three options?

Here’s an early mockup of that idea:

Early mockup of OSAP Calculator

Previous user testing had showed us that presenting many different numbers could confuse students and parents, and complicate the presentation of information. Because of that, we ended up shelving that idea, but here’s a mockup of what we tested:

Early mockup of OSAP Calculator

Making choices for a better service

In the end, creating the new calculator for the OSAP page came down to a series of choices. Each of those choices were considered, tested, and validated. Over the span of a few months, we prototyped, tested, and iterated dozens of times.

Here’s a sampling of some other choices we made that went into the version we launched:

  • rounding all the numbers to the nearest hundred to help indicate that they are approximate
  • combining the cost of school fees and school supplies into a single expense for simplicity
  • hiding most of the notes and caveats until you click on “about these numbers”
  • using a checkmark borrowed from the new OSAP logo to emphasize the aid and maintain consistency
  • splitting the “in high school or left high school less than four years ago” option into multiple options so that it’s easier to understand and fits better into a dropdown

You can try the calculator right now on the OSAP page, but it is in no way a final product. The calculator has now been live for a few months, and many people have been using it already. We’re using Google Analytics to keep track of how it is being used, and we’ve already put those analytics to make further improvements to the tool.

Launching something like the OSAP calculator to the public isn’t the end of the journey, but instead just the end of the beginning. We’re excited to keep learning from students and parents across the province on how to make it better, and how to help their journey towards post-secondary education become easier and better, too.


You can visit the OSAP estimator, and apply for OSAP using the new online application, on Ontario.ca.

Michael Fagan is a user experience designer with the Ontario.ca team.