The Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab is housed in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Office of Student Financial Aid in collaboration with Dr. Nicholas Hillman, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Lab’s mission is to use applied academic research to guide, support, and partner with practitioners whose work aims to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for current and future college students.

We believe that better academic research on financial aid can expand college access and student success in lasting ways. We do this by collaborating with practitioners to develop and implement research studies addressing their specific needs and capacity constraints. We bring an equity-oriented and evidence-based approach to these partnerships, where our team collects, manages, and analyzes data with the goal of improving policies and practices to better promote student success – particularly for underrepresented students.


Meet Our Team

Nicholas Hillman
Dr. Nicholas Hillman is an Associate Professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. His research focuses on the intersection of college access and finance, namely in the areas of student financial aid and state higher education finance. His research employs statistical analysis of large datasets and has been published in the field’s top academic journals including Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, American Educational Research Journal, and Education Finance and Policy. Dr. Hillman’s recent book (with Dr. Gary Orfield), Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension, was published by Harvard Education Press. Dr. Hillman’s research has been recognized for excellence by the Association for the Study of Higher Education and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. He is the director of the SSTAR Lab, and is a faculty affiliate in the Center for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs, and Institute for Research on Poverty.
Joshua Bach-Hanson
Joshua Bach-Hanson is a Doctoral student in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, with a focus on higher education policy. His research interests include college access and how students from rural communities interact with colleges and universities through the college selection process, admissions and financial aid processes, and the student experience once on campus.
Ellie Bruecker
Graduate Assistant
Ellie is a fifth-year doctoral student at UW-Madison. Ellie has a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Sociology from UW-Madison. Her research interests include FAFSA filing, financial aid administration, and student loan borrowing and repayment. Ellie has co-authored reports with The Institute for College Access & Success and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and she has also worked in K-12 education policy with the WI Department of Public Instruction and Madison Metropolitan School District.
Jared Colston
Jared is a second year Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from the University of Louisville. His research focuses on the demography of higher education and how postsecondary institutions relate to migration, policies surrounding “brain drain”, labor market development, and the geography of opportunity.
Kim Dancy
Graduate Assistant
Kim Dancy is a Doctoral student in the department of Education Leadership & Policy Analysis, with a focus on higher education finance. Her research examines how financial aid policies and packages impact student enrollment, persistence, and success.
Andrew Hahn
Data Visualization Specialist
Andrew Hahn is the Office of Student Financial Aid's Data Visualization Specialist. Andrew came to the Office of Student Financial Aid from a background in Journalism. Having earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he has worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Andrew joined the financial aid team in February 2018 where, as in his previous roles, he uses data to uncover bigger stories that would otherwise be invisible. Andrew worked previously for University Health Services at UW-Madison, and is passionate about improving access to the many student resources available to badgers, especially with regard to physical, emotional, and financial wellness. Andrew assists the SSTAR Lab Team with web development and the visualization of topics as needed.
Cori Splain
Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives
Cori Splain is the Office of Student Financial Aid's Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives. As part of her role, she is responsible for providing administrative support to the SSTAR Lab Team in addition to assisting with web development and coordinating events. Cori is a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Gender & Women's Studies.