Mission & History

Participation in Wisconsin postsecondary education is growing but students from low­‐income households, students of color, and students who are the first in their families to attend college are still being left behind. Ensuring that these students fulfill their potential requires finding new and effective ways to level the playing field, minimizing barriers to college completion by identifying replicable and sustainable interventions.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab is the nation’s first laboratory for translational research aimed at improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. The Lab will help to make findings from basic science useful for practical applications that enhance college attainment and human well being throughout the state, and in turn, the nation.

Our goal is to help policymakers and practitioners (a) accurately state the costs of attending college, (b) ensure that families and students understand these costs, and (c) find effective ways to cover these costs that enhance degree completion rates as well as the personal and societal benefits of postsecondary education.


The Wisconsin HOPE Lab builds on a decade of research conducted by Founding Director Sara Goldrick-Rab and her team. In 2004, Dr. Goldrick-Rab began working in Wisconsin, building community connections to better understand the challenges facing the state's students as they pursued postsecondary education. In 2005 she led her first Wisconsin-based study, a survey at Madison College designed to illuminate the education dreams of technical college students and shed light on their challenges. In 2006 she began working in Chicago and Milwaukee Public Schools, where educators aimed to increase success among their college-going students. Dr. Goldrick-Rab also worked on local and statewide initiatives through the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System. In 2008, Dr. Goldrick-Rab launched the first statewide longitudinal study of the impact of private need-based financial aid on college persistence and graduation. The study follows approximately 3,000 low-income college students receiving need-based aid. 

Following this study, Dr. Goldrick-Rab and her research team pursued additional funding to expand their work while beginning several smaller exploratory projects and evaluations, including a study on employer demand and college credentials and an evaluation of the AVID/TOPS (Advancement Via Individual Determination and Teens of Promise programs) program with the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.  In her work, Dr. Goldrick-Rab increasingly recognized that the state lacked a laboratory to identify new problems and opportunities in postsecondary education, develop appropriate interventions and evaluate them, and share knowledge with policymakers and practitioners in a timely fashion. 

In July 2013, Dr. Goldrick-Rab approached the Great Lakes Higher Educational Guaranty Corporation about her concept, who shortly thereafter granted $2.5 million in gift funds to launch the Wisconsin HOPE Lab: Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education.


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Translational Research

Translational research originated in the medical field, where research findings are “translated” into therapies that are first clinically tested and then applied in medical practice. In the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, our ‘patients’ are people who face obstacles to obtaining a college degree, as well as the social structures that impede their progress.  The therapies we test are interventions in policies and programs like financial aid, academic instruction, and social supports. The institutions and structures making up higher education in Wisconsin and the nation represent the field where these will be put into practice.

The process of translational research involves (a) primary research and investigation, (b) “translation” of knowledge gained into trial interventions, (c) evaluation of those interventions, and (d) changes to practice.  There is a necessary constant multidirectional flow of interaction and communication between different actors and stages of the work. Identification of a problem with current policies and institutions often inspires research. Policy makers and educators, in turn, look to research to improve existing programs.  Researchers often draw their inspiration for possible interventions by observing innovative programs initiated on a small scale. The cycle does not end once a program or policy is implemented. Ongoing study and feedback is essential so that programs and policies are constantly improved and the conclusions of research continually honed. 

At the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, we are in regular dialogue with community and educational leaders at the local level, as well as state and national policy makers.  We also draw from a broad range of academic disciplines as a foundation for the research and evaluation work we do. At the same time, our goal is to be responsive to contemporary social and policy challenges in such a way that we can offer practicable, evidence-based solutions in a shorter space of time than is common in traditional academic research.

We are also actively engaged in helping make the programs we propose and evaluate successful. You can read more about this engagement in a column on scholarly activism by HOPE Lab Founding Director Sara Goldrick-Rab, which was published in the Contexts blog of the American Sociological Association.