A Virtual Design Sprint Breakthrough

Recently, Moneythink Product Designer Jeanmarie Levy spearheaded a virtual design sprint – a feat which included organizing colleagues in three different time zones and several countries. The goal of the sprint was to improve the DecidED Advisor Dashboard and promote a more collaborative creative design space. 

Design sprints help make DecidED more user-friendly. Traditionally, these events take place in person; however, to increase accessibility, Jeanmarie organized this virtual version to ensure everyone had a seat at the table.

We are excited to share Jeanmarie’s story and process with you, and highlight how we’re already improving DecidED. As a nimble fintech non-profit, we believe in empowering our team to explore cutting-edge approaches to improve the lives of everyone who uses DecidED. 

(Jeanmarie was interviewed by our Communications and Marketing Consultant, Melissa Ramos. Our interview has been edited for clarity.)

Our Q&A With Jeanmarie

Melissa Ramos: Thanks for meeting to talk about your most recent design sprint! Tell us about your background and how you found yourself at Moneythink.

Jeanmarie Levy: My name is Jeanmarie and I serve as the Product Designer here at Moneythink. I am most excited about this work because the organization’s mission directly aligns with my core values of promoting access, retention and advocacy for first generation students. I myself identify as first-gen. Also, I am a former educator. I saw oftentimes where students would fall through the cracks of the college application process. Moneythink’s overall goal of reducing student debt is truly exciting for me. I have always been passionate about service and nonprofit organizations and how technology can improve people’s lives.

Melissa: It seems like your career and life experiences have helped you create a better informed product with DecidED, because you have a holistic understanding of the type of person this product serves.

Jeanmarie: Absolutely.

Melissa: Switching gears, can you explain the idea behind a design sprint? 

Jeanmarie: The idea for design sprints is a forward-thinking concept, where essentially, a team has a certain number of days to meet specific goals. These days are fully devoted to improving a product or design. Sprints bring teams together for cross collaboration, since it is beneficial for organizations to collectively come up with ideas together, instead of putting all the pressure on individuals to make big decisions. Design sprints allow us to do deep creative work around a specific problem, using our brains fully for this purpose.

Moneythink: How do you feel design sprints help Moneythink improve DecidED?

Jeanmarie: Design sprints help inform our product because we make time to take a step back and view the problems we are tackling more holistically. Design sprints give us the opportunity to empathize with users. We pride ourselves on being an equity centered organization, and we are constantly thinking about our users as a result. In this recent design sprint, we wanted to take things to the next level, so we brought in all of our teams – engineers, the development team, the partnership team, everyone. Design sprints help our product, our organization and employees better understand why we do what we do.

Melissa: Can you talk about human centered design factors into design sprints at Moneythink?

Jeanmarie: We strive to do human centered design and more so, equity centered design. Human centered design means the user is at the center of all decisions, but equity centered design invites users directly into the conversation. Equity centered design gives users the agency to make these bigger decisions with our product improvements. This is how we ended up on this particular design sprint topic: trying to improve our Advisor Dashboard. We made improvements based on real time advisor feedback.

Melissa: How did this fully remote design sprint differ from a traditional design sprint? 

Jeanmarie: Improving the Advisor Dashboard was a big challenge. We knew we needed a diverse team in order to make this happen – and I want to shout out Ben May (our API Product Manager) for helping me think outside of the box with this design sprint.

We involved our engineers because they are our product experts. They help to build this product every day. They’re all located in different countries. Our engineers are contractors, and we as an organization strive for them to have full ownership of this product. We are cognizant of the fact that we are an American organization working with contractors outside of the US. My biggest goal was to make sure our engineers felt included and that their expertise was highlighted. It was very impactful to have all of our engineers there, some of whom have been working on DecidED from the beginning.

Our goals going into the design sprint were composed of two parts. We wanted a solution for Advisor Dashboard improvement, but we also wanted to build this inspiring and collaborative team where everyone felt they had a voice. As a result of this design sprint, we have seen an increase in morale and trust, and overall positivity among all of us. The feedback was that it was awesome to have all teams cross collaborate and learn more about what our users go through.

Melissa: As the architect of this design sprint, what do you feel were the key takeaways?

Jeanmarie: Our advisors and educators have such a challenging and overwhelming role since they are trying to advocate against so much bureaucracy. Currently, our tool does a lot but not in a simple way. With new improvements, we are scaling everything back to make our advisors’ lives easier. 

Another big takeaway is the idea that cross collaboration among diverse thinkers and people is truly the way to solve big problems. When we work in silos, it’s an echo chamber. When you hear from another person, in another country, or with a different experience, it brings up a lot that hasn’t come up before. Giving people ownership helped reinvigorate a sense that there is a lot of power and capacity in the human brain – especially when we provide safe spaces. Now I have a solution for this design, but that’s because of our collaboration. I wouldn’t have been able to do this alone. It’s a big reminder that community always needs to be at the center of our work. 

Communal work is of critical importance to so many things. I think that we hit the biggest goal which was to make sure that the design sprint team felt heard, empowered, and seen. I wanted the team to feel this was a good use of their time. Some feedback I got from folks was that this space equalized all of us and our voices.

Melissa: What improvements will come to DecidED now that you have completed this particular sprint?

Jeanmarie: Lots! We already built a prototype and tested it with a long-time DecidED user. This particular educator commented that the improvements are lightyears ahead of our current dashboard. As a former educator, I keep in mind that when we design products we also need to teach users how to use this new product. I was happy to hear that this educator felt the improvements aligned seamlessly into his current work flow; it didn’t create extra steps, and it improved his work experience.

Our improvements will lead to clear, actionable steps that educators can take with students. We know the new way the tool will look will make this seamless and will help advisors in the long run.

Melissa: Very exciting that the improvements are already well received. We look forward to launching the new and improved dashboard soon! 

Interested in learning more about design sprints? Check out our resources below.

What’s a design sprint and why is it important?

The Design Sprint

And learn more about Jeanmarie and the rest of our team by visiting our Team & Board page. 

Moving Forward in College and Career in the Time of COVID-19

If you are wondering what the new normal will look like, we’re all wondering the same thing. You had plans for the fall and you’re staying the course, you’ve changed your plans, or you’re in the throes of figuring out just how much those plans will change.

If you’re committed to starting college in the fall, expect others to join you! About 42% of students in a recent survey will not delay under any circumstances. Another survey from April shows that 17% of respondents are weighing a delayed enrollment to a four-year college until spring 2021. We’re also seeing that confidence to stay on track to college persists.

At Moneythink, we have your back. We want you to feel confident that, although the options may look different at least in the near future, there are still solid opportunities with the choice being yours to make. Here’s what you may be considering:

I’m still waiting to make a decision since other colleges have extended their deadlines. How do I make my choice?

OPTION #1. ACCEPT FOR FALL 2020 OR SPRING 2021 AND PREPARE FOR A POTENTIAL VIRTUAL OR HYBRID EXPERIENCE.

Whatever the new normal looks like, colleges are getting ready for you! According to a recent report, 70% of colleges set up COVID-19 student necessity/emergency funds for their students as they prepare for the coming fall semester. While some colleges know their plans for the fall, others are still coordinating. “The majority of colleges and universities have not made a decision on the mode of instruction for fall,” and we expect this because the nature of COVID-19 is evolving across the country.

According to a recent report, 70% of colleges set up COVID-19 student necessity/emergency funds for their students as they prepare for the coming fall semester.

There is information out there so be sure to read it. Have any questions? Ask your high school counselors or local college access providers like Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, or local organizations like Making WavesOne GoalRichmond Promise, and ScholarMatch.

If you’re thinking about taking a break for a semester or a year, “institutions are giving students the option to defer enrollment to later in the fall or to spring 2021.” Be sure to check with your intended college on their specific policy.

OPTION #2. DEFER FOR A YEAR — IF YOUR COLLEGE ALLOWS IT.

There are many reasons you may wish to defer, from staying home to help family, to taking the time to rethink your educational goals and plans. When you defer (also called taking a gap year), you plan to enroll in the next academic year (2021) in a college you were accepted to this year. Here are some things to know about deferring admission at your college:

  • The college needs to accept deferment.
  • Colleges maintain different policies to grant deferrals.
  • Some colleges require you to describe how you will use your gap year.

Contact your college to learn more about their process to be sure that deferral is a real option for you. Global Citizen Year has useful information on gap years. 

OPTION #3. DO NOT ACCEPT ANY COLLEGES THIS YEAR AND REAPPLY NEXT YEAR.

With this option, you’re not taking an official gap year. Instead, you are foregoing all of this year’s college acceptances and choosing to apply again for next year, fall 2021.

However, it gets harder to enroll in college the longer you wait, so be sure you have a plan. Choosing this option gives you a chance to reconsider and rebuild your list — and decide which colleges you will reapply to during your year off. To keep you organized, let us support you! Join our mailing list and we’ll tell you when our tool DecidED comes out. You can use DecidED to track your colleges, upload your financial aid award letters, and easily compare which colleges are affordable and the best fit for your needs!

Likewise, if you do choose to forego your college plans this year altogether, we highly suggest that you use your time wisely with work or volunteering, applying to scholarships, and focusing on activities that help you grow, enhance your skills, and extend your experiences and networks. Consider programs like City Year and Year Up who have rolling application deadlines and can give you hands-on training in real-world pathways, starting this fall.

Whichever of the three options you take now, keep in mind that there are trade offs that you’ll have to weigh. Remember that, in the end, going to college typically means increasing your earnings. College graduates, on average, will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate during the course of their working life, which is why going to college is a financially smart option. When you push college back a year, you are trading your post college earning potential for whatever you may earn during your year off. Whatever that tradeoff is to you, think critically, do your homework, and commit to your decision.

College graduates, on average, will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate during the course of their working life

To make smart financial decisions, consider affordability in your choice! Check out our Financial Aid Guide for steps on Using Awards to Calculate Cost of Attendance. For a visual tutorial, view a recording of our webinar below or download the full video here. Whatever your college decides and when they decide it, prepare to adapt to the situation, and commit to making the most of your college experience. You got this! 

Supporting Students Through COVID-19 Towards College and Career

Things are changing in real time as colleges decide whether they will serve students on campus or virtually this coming fall. Likewise, students are considering a range of issues such as how far from home they can realistically go, if they need to work sooner than later, and if college expenses are even wise right now. As allies and college financial advisors, our intention is to ensure that all students have the tools and resources they need to make informed and affordable college decisions - ultimately helping them reach their college and career goals. As such, it’s important we know the circumstances students face if we are to strike the balance between giving expert guidance and affirmation as they make this important decision in their young lives.

According to the 2020 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States report, for every 100 low-income and first-generation dependent students entering college, only 26 will have earned a bachelor’s degree six years later compared with 69 of students who are not low-income and first-generation. While more low-income students are attending college, fewer students are graduating on time. 

Enrolling in a college with sustainable financial planning is critical for student success — both in college and beyond. Deciding what college to attend, however, is rife with financial risk. Colleges may offer a student dramatically different financial packages, but full cost information can be difficult to obtain, hard to compare, and challenging to interpret. 

Why is financial aid so difficult?

In our Financial Need and Ownership Report, we reveal two driving factors of students’ financial vulnerability based on our interviews:

  1. Unmet Need – the amount that is left to be paid after financial aid is awarded (not including loans). 
  2. A Sense of Ownership – students who view themselves as responsible for their financial situation have an internal sense of ownership over their financial situation.

Unmet need is rarely clear. Award letters are difficult for students, families, and academic counselors to interpret. Because of this: 

  • The nation’s $1.6 trillion in student debt is fueled by opaque pricing in higher education.
  • Only 1-5% of 4-year colleges are considered affordable for first-generation and low-income freshmen, each year.
  • 70% of college dropouts leave school due to pressing financial concerns.
  • Pell grant recipients, most of whom have family incomes under $40,000, are 5x more likely to end up in default as their higher income peers.
  • First-generation students are more likely to end up in default than students whose parents had attended college. 
  • African-American students are more likely to default on their loans than students of other races and ethnicities. 
  • And, while 60% of white students borrow money, 87% of minorities borrow to attend college.

This issue is not a partisan one. According to Senator Lamar Alexander on NPR, “We consistently hear from students, parents, and administrators that students looking for federal financial aid to go to college need a much simpler system for the $30 billion in grants, roughly $100 billion in new loans, and the repayment plans for those loans.”

Unfortunately, it’s widely acknowledged that award letters are a major source of the inequity, confusion, and misinterpretation. Here are the Seven Financial Aid Award Letter “Don’t’s” that we’ve identified since 2008:

  1. Include confusing jargon and terminology.
  2. Omit the complete cost of attendance.
  3. Fail to differentiate types of aid.
  4. Mislead packaging of parent plus loans.
  5. Provide vague definitions of work study.
  6. Show inconsistent bottom line calculations.
  7. Do not provide clear next steps. 

In the article The Financial Aid Conundrum, we see that this issue affects all students, but disproportionately for low-income students of color who tend to have a lower sense of ownership. When students lack basic financial literacy skills, they make decisions that are based more on the influences of others than their own needs, and more fueled by opinions rather than critical information.

Moneythink is on the case

Since our inception in 2008, Moneythink has been a leader in financial capability for traditionally under-served youth. From 2008-2016, we mentored 30,000 HS students nationwide using our proprietary financial capability curricula — garnering accolades along the way, such as the White House Champions of Change Award.

Beginning in 2016, after years of work in financial literacy mentorship, we honed in on one of the most decisive moments in a young person’s life: enrolling and graduating from college with minimal financial burden. With an acute understanding of the obstacles, it was clear that a successful Moneythink program could support the development of youth-focused financial empowerment habits through virtual college financial advising, while also impacting long-term behavioral change and economic status. Between 2017-2019, we provided financial college coaching to over 2,500 students in Illinois and California.

Along the way, it became clear that we could  support the field as content experts focused on providing objective financial aid coaching. We convene advisors and organizations already doing great work and optimize their financial aid coaching with our tools, content, and training. 

In my interview with Next Gen Personal Finance Co-Founder Tim Ranzetta of the “Tim Talks To…” Podcast, I remind the field:

“It’s not because there isn’t a standard format. The Department of Education has suggested a financial aid award template to help clarify and systematize the information across different colleges. But it’s really up to colleges to decide how to format the information, the language they use. And we’re really seeing a lot of variance between college financial aid award letters.”

We know that students, families, and educators need to have tools at their fingertips to make sense of the information they can get, in whatever format it’s in, to make a truly informed choice that keeps student goals at the center.

This is where Moneythink’s new affordability tool, DecidED, comes in. 

What Moneythink’s DecidED can do for YOU and Your Students

Our tool, DecidED, completely removes the guesswork out of college affordability for students and their families, as well as empowers counselors and advisors in the space. Moneythink’s tool, DecidED, scheduled for full release in the fall, 2020: .

  • Helps students make a holistic college enrollment decision informed by an accurate understanding of the cost of their college options.  
  • Provides focused, action-oriented, personalized content that helps students, families, and advisors make well informed enrollment decisions based on clear guidelines and methodology.
  • Helps schools, districts, and college access organizations extend the reach and impact of services by scaling financial aid literacy and action-enabling tools with technology and reporting.

DecidED can support educators and institutions during, throughout, and after the financial aid application process for students.

  • Educators and Institutions will be able to use DecidED for relevant, accurate financial aid guidance, advising, and tools so that they can navigate the “next normal” as education systems re-invent themselves. 
  • Administrators and Advocates can use DecidED for training, research, stories, and data that can inform reform as educators reconsider education priorities in light of lessons learned this year. We also share relevant, timely information and resources such as the NACAC Enrollment Deposit Fee Waiver and SwiftStudent for appeals.

DecidED helps students complete financial aid transactional steps and make a holistic college enrollment decision. 

  • Students use DecidED during the financial aid application process to:
    • Receive FAFSA/CA Dream Act submission reminders and instructions;
    • Make highly informed enrollment decisions grounded in an accurate and complete understanding of college costs; 
    • Compare true apples-to-apples affordability levels, quality, and fit across multiple college options; 
    • Consider how graduation rate and future salaries outcomes might influence their enrollment decision; 
    • Have productive conversations about the tradeoffs of college options with advisors and family; and 
    • Create a data-driven financial plan to responsibly pay for their college years. 
  • Students use DecidED once in college to:
    • Receive FAFSA/CA Dream Act renewal reminders and instructions for 2nd+ year of college; and
    • Continue to make highly informed decisions related to their financial plan to responsibly pay for their remaining college years.

Using our cutting edge-technology, DecidED clarifies the difference between gift aid (what students don’t have to pay back such as grants and scholarships) and self-help (what students have to pay back or earn such as loans and work study), and makes clear what the costs of attendance are. Only with all of these pieces can students and families fully understand 1) what college will cost, 2) how much outside aid they will get to go there, and 3) what is left for the family to cover.  By helping students make affordability-informed enrollment decisions, we expect that will increase the chance of students obtaining a bachelor’s degree, within their expected time to completion, with a sustainable amount of debt.

Partner with Moneythink to scale success

Whether you are a high school counselor, a school administrator, a district director, an education advocate, or a college access program lead, we want to help you scale your success. 

Here are the different ways you can engage with Moneythink to enhance your services and extend your impact.

  • Sign up for a DecidED Demo this summer and learn how the tool can be used by you and your partners.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink Partnership Info Session this summer and find out how partnership with Moneythink can improve your student outcomes and increase your team’s capacity to advise and affirm.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink Financial Aid Training for the fall and let our content experts update your staff on financial aid policy, financial aid applications, and best practices in the field.
  • Sign up for the DecidED Pilot for the fall so that we can offer your organization the collaboration, data, tools, and resources to help your students succeed.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink API Info Session if you’d like to learn more about how our data, reporting, and API resources can compliment and improve your existing tools and reports.

DecidED comes at a critical time when K-12 systems are still waiting to understand how the coronavirus will impact school plans for the 2020-2021 Academic Year. Moneythink can support education leaders in designing a new normal for graduating high school seniors, incoming college freshmen and incoming college transfers that learns from old lessons and prevents more students from making ill-informed and unaffordable college decisions. 

Together, we can help our students not just survive, but thrive. Not just complete, but succeed. Our students can achieve #lessdebtmoredegrees, and at the same time, design a pathway towards an economically sustainable future for themselves, and their families.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Joshua Lachs serves as the CEO at Moneythink, a national ed-tech nonprofit that aims to bring college cost transparency to scale while helping all students have the opportunity to earn a college degree with little to no debt. 

Meredith Curry is a Senior Advisor at Moneythink. Meredith has served as the Founding Director of Operations at California College Guidance Initiative and the Executive Director at South Central Scholars.

As former first-gen college students, Josh and Meredith each know firsthand that the financial side of college can be daunting and are both inspired to ensure that students have access to the opportunities they deserve.