In 2012, two major initiatives changed the face of Ontario’s Student Assistance Program (OSAP), a program serving more than half of all Ontario postsecondary students with $3 billion in financial aid every year.
Students are by definition our most modern clients, and in the digital age of instant access, they can be impatient with red tape. We heard frequent student complaints about the long line-ups to process their OSAP documents, and delays in receiving much needed funds. Our constant challenge is to make it easier for eligible students to get the help they need.
For some years, OSAP has been on a path of aggressive modernization to improve the student experience: policy, program delivery, IT and communications work in step to uphold the Ontario government’s commitment to make postsecondary education accessible to every qualified student.
Previous modernization initiatives provided more flexibility on loan repayment, allowed students to keep more money from part-time jobs and created an OSAP App so students could follow the status of their application and funds from their smart phone – anywhere and anytime. Successful collaboration on these improvements paved the way for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) to take on two new modernization initiatives: 30% Off and OSAP Express.
30% Off Tuition
The 30% Off Tuition grant was created to help with the cost of tuition. It targets students from low and middle income families. The criteria of combined parental income of less than $160,000 means that the program serves an estimated 300,000 eligible students, a much larger segment of the population than traditional OSAP.
In October 2011, the government asked MTCU to deliver the program beginning January 2012: a challenge that involved comprehensive policy and program design, a legal framework, detailed costing and analysis, IT development, and a communications strategy for stakeholders and students. All of this work had to take place concurrently, with policy staff drafting cabinet documents while working with systems architects, lawyers and communications staff – all toward a hard and fast deadline. Collaboration was critical to deliver this program on time, and on budget.
A cost-effective integrated marketing campaign needed to reach a new audience of non-OSAP students and parents, many of whom had never looked into government student financial aid before. As well as using social media to interact with students, and supporting colleges and universities to get the word out, ministry outreach teams visited 47 colleges and university locations over five weeks, interacting with about 30,000 students.
The successful campaign enabled about 210,000 students to benefit from grants for the 2011-12 winter term, and more students are expected to benefit in 2012-13. The program also generated a 12 percent increase in students applying for and receiving aid through the traditional OSAP program.
One of the rites of passage to receiving OSAP used to be the long line-ups at the beginning of each term to validate student loan agreements. Hundreds of tweets from frustrated students made it clear this was a major irritant, and it also put a resource burden on college and university financial aid offices.
Enter OSAP Express, the most significant service improvement for postsecondary students since online applications were first launched 15 years ago. Students can now have a lifetime loan agreement for the duration of their postsecondary studies. No more line-ups!
Said one post secondary institution’s financial aid officer: “This is the first year ever that our students have had funds in their bank accounts when their classes began in January. We’ve come a long way thanks to you folks having a vision for a better delivery model. Congratulations on what I classify as a very successful January release.”
A new electronic process provides faster confirmation of enrollment for OSAP and 30% Off Tuition grant applicants. Direct deposit options for all OSAP programs means students get their money faster. For the government alone, the program has eliminated more than one million paper loan documents and all associated costs. OSAP’s modernization journey continues to make sure that student financial aid is the best it can be.
Noah Morris is the director of the Student Financial Assistance Branch, Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.