The College Opportunities Program (COP) began in 1970 at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) as part of a national Model Cities Project funded by the federal government. The project’s goal was to reach out to the Model Neighborhood areas of Kalihi-Pālama and Waiʻanae-Nānākuli.

In 1973 the Hawaiʻi State Legislature authorized general funds for COP to recruit, screen, select, and prepare 75 Hawaiʻi residents statewide for a "Summer and First-Year Residential College Experience" on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus. This act marked the beginning of a state-supported program in higher education for nontraditional/disadvantaged students. COP expanded in 1990, selecting 125 Hawaiʻi residents who were denied regular UHM admission, disadvantaged, ethnically underrepresented on campus, nontraditional or needing a structured residential college-entry experience.

COP is based on the belief that given a chance, individuals who are motivated and provided with new learning opportunities and support services can succeed in their first year at the University and eventually earn a baccalaureate degree.