SSTAR Lab brings student outcomes data crunchers into financial aid office


Launch of SSTAR Lab bring student outcomes data crunchers
into UW-Madison’s financial aid office

With concerns over student debt, college affordability, and access to higher education garnering increasing attention since the Great Recession of a decade ago, there has been a growing community of researchers examining issues related to financial aid.

Yet much of the work being done in this realm isn’t closely linked to financial aid offices and practitioners on the front lines who are working with students and their families on a consistent basis.

Nick Hillman and the SSTAR Lab
Nicholas Hillman explains, "As a researcher, if you don't
have insight into how finncial aid works in a real-world
setting, it's going to have less of a practical impact."
“People who work in financial aid offices under- stand a range of policy, compliance, and regulatory issues,” says UW–Madison’s Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. “As a researcher, if you don’t have insight into how financial aid works in a real-world setting, it’s going to have less of a practical impact.”

In an effort to conduct more meaningful research in this field, UW–Madison launched the Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab and housed it within the university’s Office of Student Financial Aid. The lab is led by Hillman, who says he isn’t aware of any other lab that’s developing such a partnership with a financial aid unit.

The SSTAR Lab’s mission is to use research to guide, support, and partner with practitioners whose work aims to improve opportunities and outcomes for current and future college students.

“Having our team so closely engaged with the academic and research enterprise is not only exciting for our team, but we believe it is critical in pushing forward solutions to institutional, state, and national issues related to higher education and access,” says Derek Kindle, UW–Madison’s director of student financial aid.

The SSTAR Lab and Office of Student Financial Aid can already point to one major success with the unveiling of Bucky’s Tuition Promise. The initiative covered tuition and segregated fees for nearly 800 students from Wisconsin who started classes at UW–Madison last fall and whose family’s annual household adjusted gross income is $56,000 or less — roughly the state’s median family income.

“It was an exciting idea,” Hillman says of Bucky’s Tuition Promise. “Could this university really afford to give free tuition to lower-income students across Wisconsin? We started digging deep into the data and looking at the variables and costing things out. We designed the Promise in a way that, hopefully, is sustainable long-term.”

The lab’s research team includes graduate assistants Ellie Bruecker and Jacklyn Fischer, both of whom are pursuing doctorates through the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

“The opportunity to learn from practitioners has given me a new understanding of the complexity of financial aid policy and the people who make those policies work for students,” says Bruecker. 

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