OPINION: Tackling research projects can help students get into top colleges and universities

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Overlooked in the trove of sensitive data released by Harvard during the affirmative action lawsuit is the outsize role that performing research can play in helping students get into elite colleges and universities.

Officials from the University of Pennsylvania and California Institute of Technology recently revealed that between a third and a half of all admitted students showcased their research projects in their applications. MIT even features “Research” and “Maker” portfolios sections in its application.

For years, research projects have offered an important way for applicants to demonstrate qualities like grit, creativity and originality. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions, research will play an even more prominent role in deciding who can attend top colleges.

Related: Supreme Court makes its historic ruling in affirmative action cases

Research projects can be both a differentiator and an equalizer in the college admissions process. Examining applicants’ research projects gives admissions officers another tool to help them select diverse incoming classes while building an accomplished student body.

Participating in research helps students from a variety of academic backgrounds showcase their intellectual potential in ways that standardized tests do not. It also allows them to demonstrate their interest in and ability to apply themselves to important problems — such as the impact of invasive iguanas in South Florida and the disproportionate representation of minority students among those labelled as having learning disabilities in a Houston school district.

In order for research to work as an equalizer, however, we need to ensure equitable access to quality research opportunities. To create a more level playing field, special care needs to be taken to ensure that the most under-resourced communities can reap the benefits that come from exposure to research.

While doing my own research at MIT and Harvard, I saw firsthand how professors are able to place their children into the labs of fellow researchers. Similarly, wealthy families that provide philanthropic funding to professors are able to get their children opportunities in the labs of their beneficiaries.

Students without family connections resort to sending cold emails to hundreds of professors and graduate students — a process that has a notoriously low success rate. While I was getting my Ph.D. at MIT, I received many more such emails than I could respond to.

Recognizing the benefits of and need for cultivating research skills pre-college, the College Board introduced the AP Research program in 2014. In the years since, the number of participating students has risen from 5,000 to 50,000, and over 3,000 schools now offer this course.

Still, these figures represent less than 1.5 percent of all eligible high schoolers and less than 15 percent of all U.S. schools.

Scaling up research programs is resource-intensive, because students require individual attention from experts over an extended period of time. Few high schools have staff trained to supervise research projects. Even fewer can help more than two or three dozen students.

To meet the growing demand, a range of programs has emerged.

Every year a few hundred students are selected nationwide to participate in the most competitive and prestigious university-sponsored research programs. MIT’s Research Science Institute offers opportunities to “100 of the world’s most accomplished high school students.” The Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program expects around 50 students to participate this year, while Rockefeller University’s Summer Science Research Program expects to host 16 students.

While participation in these programs is free, students typically need to find their own housing, and financial aid for travel and living is limited.

Besides this handful of highly competitive free programs, there are over 100 research programs sponsored by universities that charge steep tuition, especially for nonlocal high school students. Boston University’s Research in Science and Engineering Program charges $5,645 for commuters and $8,633 with room and board. Tufts University’s Summer Research Experience costs $8,000 for commuters and $11,250 for the residential program. The University of California’s famous STEM-focused COSMOS program, hosted on four UC campuses, costs $4,770 and is available for California students only.

Research projects can be both a differentiator and an equalizer in the college admissions process.

In addition, in recent years, private educational organizations have begun to offer online research programs. A collection of companies, including Polygence (which I co-founded), Horizon Academic and Pioneer Academics, work with thousands of students each year. These cost-effective tech-enabled programs allow students to participate regardless of location by connecting them online with researchers at universities across the U.S.

Mentorship from these online programs typically starts at $2,700 for one-on-one instruction and $500 per person for group programs; the costs cover the expense of compensating research mentors for their time. These programs offer scholarship assistance to students in need, but financial aid generally remains limited.

Clearly, more needs to be done to level the playing field.

One promising opportunity lies at the federal level, where the National Science Foundation currently spends $838 million on undergraduate and graduate research and education. Repurposing a fraction of those funds for high school students could radically expand research opportunities for hundreds of thousands of high school students across the country.

Encouragingly, the NSF recently announced plans to award grants “to provide high school students with a meaningful research experience” in math and the physical sciences and in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. While the overall federal budget for this plan is not publicly known, the decision to support high school researchers is a step in the right direction and marks the emergence of research skills as a new frontier in pre-collegiate education.

Excellence in research is the intellectual foundation of universities, which have historically been the centers of world-changing breakthroughs, from detecting gravitational waves in collapsing black holes to inventing the mRNA technology that powers Covid vaccines.

Research skills and experience will remain invaluable for institutions and individuals alike, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, it will be ever-more important for students of all backgrounds to get opportunities to demonstrate their intellectual passion and potential.

Janos Perczel holds a Ph.D. in theoretical quantum physics from MIT and is the co-founder of the high school research program Polygence.

This story about research projects for high schoolers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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