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California College Promise Grant

Project Overview

To continually increase students’ access to financial aid opportunities, the Student Centered Design Lab partnered with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to redesign the California College Promise Grant financial aid application. The simplified application now includes more student-friendly language, a clearer pathway guiding students to completion, and the ability for colleges to customize branding and submission instructions.

Current Application
New Application

“If there were more documents like that — simple, straight to the point — I feel like a lot of people would submit their documents on time instead of waiting until the last minute, or not even doing it at all.”

El Camino Community College Student


Minimizing Barriers to Financial Aid

The California College Promise Grant (CCPG) offers a tuition and fee waiver to low-income students and students with special classifications across 115 California community colleges. Annually, more than one million students — nearly half of all California community college students — rely on the CCPG to pursue their educational and career goals.

The CCPG application’s design has remained unchanged since 2005, with the exception of adding legislatively mandated questions to the four-page application. But, expanding student access to financial aid is paramount to expanding student access to higher education. It’s also a central driver of the California Community Colleges’ multi-year strategic plan and its steadfast
commitment to equity.

The Student Centered Design Lab (SCDL), a research and design unit housed at the Foundation for California Community Colleges (FoundationCCC), partnered with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to redesign the application, specifically aiming to:

  • Reduce student hassles in application access and completion
  • Increase overall student usage of the application
  • Increase overall state financial aid dollars awarded to eligible students.


Centering the Student Experience

The team combined four methodologies and incorporated 24 students in the application redesign process, which was conducted entirely remotely due to COVID-19.

At the project’s outset, the team implemented a design sprint, including a current student grant recipient, internal and external financial aid experts, and communications, design, research, public policy, and equity specialists across the FoundationCCC. Multiple student-generated videos describing students’ previous experiences completing the application were also included to better understand pain points.

We intentionally built a team of people with lived experiences navigating the complex system of financial aid who are of diverse racial/ethnic identities, ages, and socioeconomic statuses. The design sprint led to participants’ co-creation of a high fidelity, clickable application prototype.

Throughout the design sprint, participants used Miro to collaborate on different artifacts like user journey maps and personas.


Gaining Student Insights

Behavioral science research has shown that seemingly small administrative hassles can often have a disproportionate impact on student persistence, causing students frustration or worse: abandonment of their educational goals. Many students, especially first-generation college students, often personalize a failure of an inefficient system and wrongly assume college just “isn’t for them.”

The team combined behavioral science learnings with student usability testing of the prototype. Usability testing compared key metrics between the current and redesigned applications’ designs, each of which were tested by a unique sample of 10 students.

Metrics assessed included:

  • Clarity of the layouts and instructions
  • Time to complete
  • Time to complete compared to similar documents
  • Ease of the overall experience
  • Likeliness of recommending application to a friend

Next, the team gathered input from more than 80 financial aid staff members. Staff survey data were collected about how applications are submitted and processed, which informed planning efforts for the redesigned application’s systemwide launch across 115 colleges. Relatedly, information was also gathered from members of the California Community Colleges Student Financial Aid Administrators Association in a virtual feedback session for incorporation into the redesign and distribution.


Creating a Student-friendly Application

Incorporating research findings into the prototype’s iterative design process, the team condensed the four-page application to two pages.

Download the CCPG PDF Application

The easier to comprehend and faster to complete application was also professionally translated into Spanish, rendering multilingual access to the financial aid application.


Students Validate a Better Experience

The redesigned application outperformed the current application on every metric assessed. The average time it took students to complete the redesigned application, which they described as “simple, helpful, organized, and user-friendly,” was almost half that of the current application, which students described as “lengthy, cluttered, complicated, and discouraging.”

Highlights of student feedback gathered during user testing.

Next Steps

Improving the Online Experience

In the midst of a global public health crisis, racial reckoning, and economic uncertainty, the California Community Colleges wanted to ensure that critical financial aid applications are easier for prospective and current students to access and use. PDFs of the redesigned application were launched in summer 2020, and the digital application will be released during the next academic year.

The SCDL applies design thinking frameworks and user experience methods to solve problems and iteratively design tools and services removing barriers to students’ entry into and progression through the community colleges. Tailoring systemwide digital tools, initiatives, policies, and programs to best meet student needs ultimately helps students get started on the path to achieving their educational goals.

“I had the pleasure and benefit of working with the Student Centered Design Lab team. They did a phenomenal job leading this project, gathering a dedicated and diverse design team, and producing a product that can greatly enhance the student experience at a California community college.”

Gina Browne Dean, Educational Services and Support