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The Value of a University Education Extends Beyond Knowledge

Australian researchers find the experience changes students' personalities—for the better.

A debate has emerged in recent years over whether a college education is really worth the expense and effort. After all, it is argued, emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than academic learning. And universities don't teach those skills, do they?

Well, it turns out they do. That's the takeaway from new Australian research, which finds a university education has a positive impact on two key personality traits—extroversion and agreeableness.

"We see quite clearly that students' personalities change when they go to university," Sonja Kassenboehmer of Monash University, the paper's lead author, said in announcing the findings. "It is good news that universities not only seem to teach subject-specific skills, but also seem to succeed in shaping skills valued by employers and society."

The study, published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers, tracked 575 Australian adolescents over eight years. Their level of each of the "big five" personality traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—was measured in surveys taken just after they finished high school, and again four and eight years later.

Thirty-three percent of participants ended up attending a university, and the researchers found that, after controlling for a variety of factors that could influence personality development—including gender, health, and socioeconomic status—the experience made a significant difference.

First, they report, "youth who enter the university track, or (earn a degree), have significantly higher levels of extroversion" than their peers who went into the work force." In general, extroversion tends to decline with age; this research suggests a university education can reverse that trend.

And that entails major advantages. The American Psychological Association has noted that extroverts "often have higher-quality social interactions that help them build rapport with other people. This social proficiency gives extroverts a distinct edge when it comes to networking for a new job or getting noticed by the boss for a promotion."

Importantly, each additional year spent in a university was associated with higher levels of extroversion. This suggests the effect is likely due to "exposure to university life" rather than "what is being taught in class."

A university education "encourages participation in club activities, social functions, and communication with fellow students and academic staff on a continuous basis," the researchers write.

"In addition, university education is associated with higher levels of agreeableness for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds," they add. These students "started from the lowest baseline scores" in this personality trait, but experienced "the steepest growth curve" during their university years.

This suggests that, in terms of being cooperative and considerate, "university students from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up with their peers from more privileged backgrounds," the researchers write. "This is likely due to exposure to new peer groups and/or extracurricular activities."

As an interesting aside, Kassenboehmer and her colleagues note that Australian student life is less focused on campus than in the United States or Britain. Only about 5 percent of Australian university students live in residential halls, while 35 percent live with their parents. It's quite possible the impact of higher education is even greater among American students, who are more likely to leave home and live on campus.

None of this implies there is only one way to develop the personality traits that will serve you well for life. But it does suggest a university is a great place to pick them up. And who knows?—you might even learn a few things in the process.