Research helps retention, grad rates

A new study says undergrads who do research are more likely to graduate.

Cati Vanden Breul

First- and second-year college students who conduct research with faculty members might have better retention and graduation rates, suggests a study conducted by the University of Michigan.

The study compared the graduation and retention rates of students in the school’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program with a control group of students who applied for the program but were not accepted.

Because both groups of students in the study were interested in doing research, they were probably equally motivated to succeed, program director Sandy Gregerman said.

“Students are accepted mostly on a first-come, first-serve basis,” she said.

An applicant’s grade point average is not a factor for admission, Gregerman said.

Right now, 700 students are on the waiting list for the program, which caters to first- and second-year students, and approximately 1,000 are involved in research with faculty members, she said.

Founded in 1989, the program was originally designed to improve the retention rate of minority students, but is now open to all first- and second-year students. Minority students make up 20 percent of the undergraduates in the program.

Black men in the program showed the most significant difference compared with the control group. Three-fourths of black men in the program completed their undergraduate degree, compared with 56 percent of the control group and 57 percent of all black undergraduate men at the University of Michigan.

A survey of alumni found that students in the program were significantly more likely than students from the control group to undergo postgraduate education and get doctoral degrees.

Gregerman said one reason research is important early in a student’s career is so he or she feels comfortable within the department.

“Getting students involved with faculty and getting to know them right away makes them happy with the institution and gets them some mentorship,” she said. “They realize that the faculty really does care about their success.”

University of Minnesota student Emily Johnson, who just completed her sophomore year, has been helping a faculty member with research since her first year on campus.

Johnson breeds and identifies the DNA of mice for a professor who is studying how protein moves within the retina.

Johnson said it has been a beneficial experience.

“As a freshman, I didn’t really have a place. Going into a lab and hearing people say, ‘You are a freshman and you can do this stuff,’ made me feel more a part of the University,” she said.

Working in a lab has also helped Johnson in her classes, she said.

“I felt like I had an edge in my lab classes; lab technique is a valuable skill to have.”

But Jordan Stalker, a journalism student who joined the University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program his junior year, said students should wait until they are juniors or seniors to participate in research.

“By then you have a clearer idea of what area you want to specialize in, and you’ll have a better rapport with faculty to know who is doing what research in what fields,” Stalker said.

Some first- and second-year students might not be ready to commit the time needed to participate in groundbreaking research, he said.

“Research takes a lot of time to do it well; I don’t think many freshmen are ready to devote that much time,” Stalker said. “But if a freshman is really gung-ho about a project, their age should not be a limiting factor.”

Johnson said her early start will help in her future career in medicine.

“Starting early in your undergraduate career is really good for your future; it’s something in addition to just getting an ‘A’ in your organic chemistry lab,” she said.