Redesigning the Financial Aid Experience

Committed to improving affordability and increasing transparency, Zenith Education Group collaborated with the ECMC Innovation Lab to reimagine the financial aid experience. Using the Human-Centered Design approach, the new financial aid process supports the student holistically and empowers them to make strong financial decisions.

Zenith Education Group's schools—Everest (now Altierus) and WyoTech—offer an alternative to the traditional four-year college. These hyper-focused programs can help students prepare for a career in as little as nine months.

Understanding the financial aid process

We immersed ourselves in students’ experiences with visits to Zenith campuses. On those visits, we hosted extensive talks with students, administrators, and financial aid counselors. Off campus, we had interviews with industry experts—in higher education, college access, and financial literacy—to learn industry best practices and their personal pain points. 

Our Key Findings

  • Students feel overwhelmed in the process of getting financial aid—there is confusing jargon, unclear numbers and lots of paperwork.

  • Students often leave the process unsure of the choices they made. Many students discussed not receiving a "receipt" for how much they paid.

  • Students weren't provided with the context of how their financial aid fit into their other finances. For many students, basic financial literacy had never been covered and words like "budgeting" and "credit score" created visceral reactions that "those aren't for me."

  • Financial literacy tools currently being used often treat students as children and don't cover the nuances of their financial lives.

  • Many of our financial aid planners felt their role required them to be "robotic," hampering them from building real relationships with students. The result was students did not come back when they need help.

  • After school, these students are at a significantly higher risk of defaulting on their student loans because they don't understand the student loan process.

Our Solution

We built quick prototypes of multiple ideas and tested them with students and planners alike. Ultimately, we reimagined the conversations that students have with their financial aid planner.

Every student who enrolls in a Zenith program meets with a financial aid planner. Each student is given their own workbook. This allows the student to drive the conversation, be in control of documenting the discussion, and leave with a guide to refer back to if the student has questions. With the workbook as a guide, the financial aid planner walks through:

  • The basics of paying for college
  • How federal student loans work
  • Managing federal student loans during and after school
  • Repayment and the consequences of default

The financial aid planner then offers the student the option of taking a break and scheduling a follow-up appointment. This break offers the student a chance to go home and reflect on the conversation. Students can also choose to continue and go through the full process in one sitting. The rest of the conversation focuses on providing resources for the student’s financial health:

  • Budgeting—for now, for surprise expenses and for the future
  • Researching future salaries through government sources
  • Understanding credit scores and how student loans may affect them
  • Establishing an emergency savings account
  • Banking basics—checking vs. savings, overdraft fees, etc.

An additional pamphlet helps students specifically understand the math around maxing out their federal student loans.

 Initial paper prototype

Initial paper prototype

 Example page from first prototype

Example page from first prototype

 Example page from final version

Example page from final version


The Results

Now underway at all of Zenith Education Group’s nonprofit campuses, the new financial aid process was successfully piloted across seven campuses in the fall of 2015.



Initial data from that program indicate that students who went through the piloted financial aid process were one-third less likely to take out their maximum available federal student loans, compared to students at campuses without the pilot. Read More >