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Which Students to Serve? Universal or Targeted Eligibility for Postsecondary Opportunity Programs


Elizabeth Vaade 

Policy Analyst, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bo McCready

Project Assistant, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Dramatic changes in the higher education landscape and the recent recession have intensified the challenges students face in postsecondary enrollment and completion. In response, some states, communities, and institutions have developed postsecondary opportunity programs (POPs)—comprehensive college access and success programs offering a combination of funding and support services.  

POPs have the potential to transform students’ educational careers as well as enhance their future success; therefore, the decision of who will be eligible to access these programs is extremely important and often highly contentious. The debate over eligibility has influenced education policies and programs for pre-K, school choice, financial aid, and college admissions. But while public policy literature has much to say about the theoretical implications of universal and targeted eligibility, less research exists on how these classic debates play out in policymaking and practice.

This brief examines how the designers of POPs determine eligibility for their programs, focusing on their decision either to employ universal eligibility or target students who are underrepresented in postsecondary education. The authors explore the factors that influence the eligibility decision for 10 programs, including how closely the identified aspects align with those cited in the existing literature. To conclude, the brief offers lessons for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers and recommendations for POPs stakeholders moving forward.


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