Although proposals are still being turned in to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, it looks as if the number of UROP undergraduates working with MIT faculty this summer could dip below 400 for the first time since the summer of 1979.
Stipends for summer work were granted for the first time in summer 1974 when UROP was five years old. While there is always a last-minute surge of sponsored-research-paid UROPs, the UROP Office anticipates a possible 60 percent drop in participation compared with the summer of 1994.
Limits to UROP summer support are the direct result of changes in government regulations for indirect costs which took effect July 1, 1994. Office of Management and Budget Memorandum A21 mandates that overhead be charged on UROP wages paid by sponsored research and discourages cost sharing between sponsored research and UROP funds.
This increased the cost of a UROP stipend by 62 percent (6.5 percent employee benefits and 52 percent overhead applied to the total of wages plus benefits). A one-time $1 million influx of discretionary funds from the provost last summer helped the faculty bear the added costs during July and August, allowing UROP to have a nearly normal 1994 summer with about 1,000 students participating.
An MIT request to exclude UROP from indirect costs is currently in the hands of the Office of Management and Budget. Meanwhile, the indirect cost rate (overhead) has risen to 58.5 percent and will affect the faculty's sponsored research budgets for UROP wages charged after June 30.
Participation in UROP during the fall and spring semesters was not as dramatically affected as summer. Summer is a special time for UROP when students can fully immerse themselves in research without the distractions of course work and other demands. The financial stakes are also higher in summer, with UROP-paid students earning $3,300 at $6.90 an hour and those paid by sponsored research typically earning more than the UROP rate. Last summer's average hourly rate paid by faculty sponsored research was $7.86.
Based on proposals already approved this summer, the average hourly rate for sponsored research-paid UROP will be $7.13 an hour. What this means to students is clearer when put in the following terms: last summer nearly 200 students earned more than $8.00 an hour. Judging by proposals UROP has approved thus far, only about a dozen students may be paid more than $8.00 an hour by their faculty supervisors this summer.
UROP director Norma McGavern reports that during this academic year there were 32 percent fewer UROP projects for pay, offset by a 19 percent gain in UROP projects done for credit. Overall student participation was down by 19 percent. The split between pay and credit UROP work reverted to 60-40 percent in favor of pay, a ratio not seen since the 1984-1985 academic year. In the past decade the proportion of students working for pay had edged up to just over 75 percent.
There is some good news, however. Ms. McGavern reports that gifts to UROP this year from individual donors and the fall alumni fund drive boosted UROP's small endowment by more than $300,000.
"A donation that we're especially happy about is being the recipient of the Class of 1995 Senior Class Gift," she said. "It demonstrates how meaningful UROP has been to them, and that they understand how important it is for UROP to continue to offer the same opportunities to future undergraduates."
Despite the drop in participation by undergraduates, faculty involvement in UROP seems to be holding steady. A recent tally done by UROP staff showed that more than 50 percent of the MIT faculty served as UROP project supervisors during this academic year.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 1995.