Does higher education really make us better people?

A recent study published in Oxford Economic Papers suggests that going to university has beneficial effects on interpersonal skills and individual conscientiousness.

Behavioural economists led by Sonja Kassenboehmer observed 575 adolescents in Australian universities over a period of eight years. The team found a correlation between the teens´ “education decisions” and their conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion. The researchers concluded that “exposure to university life” was the key factor in increasing students´ “non-cognitive ability.” This effect was particularly strong in cases of youngsters from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.

The results of this study may not seem surprising – university environment is poised to make students more outspoken. Primary or secondary school simply does not achieve the same things. Comparing primary or secondary school with university is like juxtaposing a pond with a sea. With strangers all around (especially first year), students are nudged to make new friends quickly, and agreeableness and confidence make this a bit less challenging. It is likely that the diversity of people and greater academic pressure at University pushes students towards responsibility. However, it is also possible that due to the rigorous application process, newcomers to university are “naturally” more inclined to be fastidious, with academic institutions only reinforcing this natural tendency.

However, the strong correlation in the low-income student population is rather well explained by the change of atmosphere university brings. Poverty can go hand-in-hand with social isolation and oftentimes creates a low self-image due to a classist society. Attending university might give such students an opportunity to make acquaintances and friends who do not care about their social status. 

From a scientific point of view, the results of this study should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Big Five methodology the authors used to measure character traits is flawed. Furthermore, the study maps a single student cohort in Australia – results for different students in other countries may not necessarily be similar.

Most importantly, as with most psychological research, this study was correlational. It can only state that university attendance and improved social skills occur together. Common occurrence and causation are two wildly different concepts. Greater sociability may be caused by factors different from attending university: age and interaction with peers may be alternate explanations. One needs to be careful with correlation, as it sometimes produces very implausible, but amusing relationships. After all, there has been a study that found a statistically significant relationship between dishwasher use and the practice of safe sex.  

Image credit: Caleb Woods via Unsplash

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