Amid the plentiful and highfalutin rhetoric about the educational value of involving undergraduates in research, sound evidence that proves that value is harder to find. But researchers at the University of Michigan have produced a series of quantitative studies suggesting that involving undergraduates in research early in their college careers makes them more likely to stay in college, get their degrees, and go on to graduate school.
While those findings may not seem shocking, the Michigan studies are noteworthy in large part because they directly compare students who actively participate in undergraduate research with a control group of students who themselves are interested in doing such research – because they applied to and were turned away from Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. 
"This allows us to compare apples with apples -- students who were equally motivated to participate in this kind of research," says Sandra Gregerman, director of the Michigan program, which was established in 1989 to encourage the retention of underrepresented minority students but was opened several years later to all freshmen and sophomores (for reasons that included but were not limited to legal concerns about race-based programs, Gregerman says). About 20 percent of the 1,000-plus participants in the program -- who spend about 10 hours a week (either for academic credit or work study) working with a faculty member on a research project -- now are minority students.
Gregerman has studied the program from several different angles. In a review of how participation affected student retention, she found that black male students particularly benefited from being in the program. Seventy-five percent of African-American men who participated in the program earned their undergraduate degrees, compared to 56 percent of the control group and 57 percent of all black male undergraduates at Michigan.
Attrition of white male students who participated in the program was also significantly lower than for the control group, but female and Hispanic students did not show a measurable difference, she said.
A survey of alumni of Michigan's undergraduate research program found that they were significantly more likely to seek postgraduate education than were students in the control group, and to get medical or law degrees or Ph.D.s.
In a study prepared for Michigan's engineering dean but not yet published, Gregerman also found that Asian American undergraduates and black, Hispanic and American Indian students who participated in the program were far likelier than students who didn't to remain enrolled in an engineering curriculum:
|White men||Black, Hispanic and American Indian men||Asian American men||White women||Black, Hispanic and American Indian women||Asian American women|
|Students in the program||86.9%||75.5%||93.6%||74.3%||80.9%||87.2%|
Gregerman's conclusions, based on the various studies:
- Though many undergraduate research programs are focused on juniors and seniors, that may be too late. "You need to engage them early on, before they decide to leave a field, leave the campus, or do something different," she says.
- Too many programs aimed at retaining minority students focus on providing remedial work. "A lot of colleges focus on added help so that students can catch up, but for many students a remedial approach is not what they need," Gregerman says. "Getting them involved with research early on helps get them socialized into the discipline, integrated into the academic life of campus."