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New Wisconsin HOPE Lab seeks solutions to college completion barriers

May 05, 2014

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which is the only laboratory in the nation dedicated to translational research for improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education, held a launch reception Monday, May 5 at the Madison Public Library.

Wisconsin Hope Lab 200 logoThe lab is directed by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at UW-Madison, and is housed within the School of Education.

"Finding ways to help people move through higher education is incredibly important work," says Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education. "On our campus we talk about the Wisconsin Idea and taking what we've learned and changing our community, changing our state and changing the world. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab is a great example of the Wisconsin Idea in action."

Although Monday’s reception marked the public opening for the HOPE Lab, it has been humming along for several months now, with four other full-time employees and a cadre of talented graduate students already involved in 18 different research projects.

Hope Lab
Richard George, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Julie
Underwood pose for a photo Monday night.
“We could be doing even more,” says Goldrick-Rab. “We’re really only limited by our staffing resources. I keep telling people that there are so many critical issues we need to examine for the state and the nation.”

The HOPE Lab – which is an acronym for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education -- is overseen by a board of directors from across Wisconsin and was made possible thanks to a five-year, $2.5 million founding gift from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation (Great Lakes).

“What we at Great Lakes want to know are basically three things," says Richard George, president and CEO of Great Lakes. “We want to know what works. We want to know what doesn't. And we want to know what could but isn't (working). That is our pursuit. That's our passion. And that's or promise for the future. Because without hope, without a belief across all of our demographics that there is hope, that we can all participate in the American Dream, there is no hope for any of us. So we see the HOPE Lab as instrumental to all of our futures.”

Studies have shown that even as attendance at Wisconsin’s colleges and universities grow, many students — especially those from low- and moderate-income homes — are not graduating. In a time of tight budgets and concerns about student debt loads and completion rates at some institutions, this leaves many families and young people concerned about their future.

Goldrick-Rab has dedicated her academic career to finding new and effective ways to ameliorate barriers to college completion by identifying replicable and sustainable interventions that can help all students succeed. But over the years, she came to recognize that the state lacked a laboratory that could identify new opportunities in postsecondary education, develop appropriate interventions and evaluate them, and share that knowledge with policymakers, practitioners and the public in a timely and useful fashion.

This is the primary focus of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Goldrick-Rab notes that one of the keys to finding sustainable interventions will be to make connections with, and listen to, practitioners in the field.

“Too often, labs are set up where academics go out and basically say, ‘We’re here to help you!’ ” says Goldrick-Rab. “But this needs to be more of a two-way street where we are listening to what the practitioners need and want. We are taking this process of engagement with the field very seriously.”

To that end, the HOPE Lab employs a community research liaison to spend time building and bridging those relationships.

The lab’s researchers have already initiated a series of new and intriguing partnerships, including with the Oneida Nation, UW-Milwaukee, UW Colleges, Gateway Technical College and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County,  among many others.

In addition, the HOPE Lab is part of a National Science Foundation-backed effort to examine how financial aid affects college choices. This project will award up to $4 million in grants, provided by Great Lakes, to undergraduates at 11 Wisconsin colleges and universities.  In another study, facilitated by the William T. Grant Foundation, ethnographers will live among students on four public university campuses for more 18 months to understand how perceptions of college affordability shape the college experience and find points of effective intervention.

“I’m so grateful for the backing of Great Lakes and the fact that the School of Education has the flexibility to help me make this lab possible,” says Goldrick-Rab, who also is a Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE), and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, Center for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs, and the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research (WCER).

To learn more, visit the HOPE Lab website, check out its Facebook Page or follow @wihopelab on Twitter.

Sara Goldrick-Rab Hope Lab opening

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