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University education makes students more agreeable, conscientiousness

Monday, 12 March, 2018

A recent study published in Oxford Economic Papers indicates that university education has a dramatically positive effect on the development of non-cognitive skills like conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness, in addition to the expected intellectual benefits. The paper also shows that the impact of education on these skills is even more dramatic for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

University education coincides with the transition from adolescence into young adulthood. The nature of this maturation process is toward increasing levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability and decreasing levels of openness to experience and extraversion. University training may alter this maturation process: Theoretically, it could boost, weaken, or even reverse population trends in personality trait maturation.

University education may impact character skills development by providing students with exposure to new peer groups and extracurricular activities including sport, politics, and art. Because students from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be more affected by a change in peer groups through day-to-day interaction with academically inclined peers and academic groups, there may be a greater effect of university education on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To measure character skills researchers used five personality traits--openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism--which are widely accepted as a meaningful construct for describing differences in character skills by psychologists. Some of these character skills- extraversion or openness to new experiences - are important for employers. Other character skills- like agreeableness - are related to preferences such as reciprocity and altruism, which are significant for personal health and wellbeing.

To identify the effect of university education, researchers followed the education and character skills trajectories of 575 adolescents over eight years using nationally-representative, longitudinal data from the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey. The data provide measures of character skills before potential university entry, and follow up measures four and eight years later.

The results indicate that every additional year spent at university is associated with increases in extraversion and agreeableness for youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The results show that university education has positive effects on extraversion, reversing a downward sloping population trend in outward orientation as people age. It also accelerates an upward-sloping population trend in agreeableness for students from low socioeconomic status, boosting agreeableness scores from the lowest levels observed at baseline to the highest levels at the eight-year follow up. This finding suggests that the causal mechanism is likely to operate through actual exposure to university life, rather than through academic course content. Such interpretation is strengthened by the observation that length of exposure to university life is positively associated with character development.

As yet, no empirical evidence has existed on the matter. This study provides a robust empirical look at the role that university education plays in skills development in adolescents. Australian universities contribute to building sociability (extraversion) and the tendency to cooperate (agreeableness).

In addition, university education is associated with higher levels of agreeableness for both male and female students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who started from the lowest baseline scores in adolescence and experienced the steepest growth curve as they entered university. This implies that students from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up with their peers from more privileged backgrounds, thus reducing initial levels of inequality in agreeableness.

"We see quite clearly that students' personalities change when they go to university, said the paper's lead researcher," Sonja Kassenboehmer. "Universities provide an intensive new learning and social environment for adolescents, so it is not surprising that this experience could impact on students' personality. 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."

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The paper "University education and non-cognitive skill development" is available at: https://academic.oup.com/oep/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/oep/gpy002

Direct correspondence to:

Sonja C. Kassenboehmer 
Centre for Health Economics, Monash University 
Building 75, 15 Innovation Walk, Monash University, 
Clayton, Victoria 3800, AUSTRALIA 
sonja.kassenboehmer@monash.edu

To request a copy of the study, please contact:

Daniel Luzer 
daniel.luzer@oup.com

Many elderly are prescribed antihypertensive medication despite already having low blood pressure

Monday, 04 July, 2016

According to a new study in the journal Age and Ageing, a significant proportion of patients over 70 remain on antihypertensive medication despite having low blood pressure. This, the study argues, has a significant effect on increased mortality rates and admissions to hospital.

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Survey of 15,000 women and men reveals scale of infertility

Friday, 01 July, 2016

One in eight women and one in ten men have experienced infertility, yet nearly half of them have not sought medical help, according to a study of more than 15,000 women and men in Britain published in Human Reproduction, one of the world's leading reproductive medicine journals.

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Prenatal exposure to paracetamol may increase autism spectrum and hyperactivity symptoms in children

Friday, 01 July, 2016

A new study from the International Journal of Epidemiology has found that paracetamol (acetaminophen), which is used during pregnancy, has a strong association with autism spectrum symptoms in boys and for both genders in relation to attention-related and hyperactivity symptoms.

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How much you weigh as a teenager is linked to your risk of heart failure in early middle age

Friday, 17 June, 2016

Research that followed more than 1.6 million Swedish men from adolescence onwards between 1968 and 2005 has shown that those who were overweight as teenagers were more likely to develop heart failure in early middle age. 

Surprisingly, the increased risk of heart failure was found in men who were within the normal body weight range (a body mass index of 18.5 to 25) in adolescence, with an increased risk starting in those with a BMI of 20 and rising steeply to a nearly ten-fold increased risk in those who were very obese, with a BMI of 35 or over.

The study, which is published today (Friday) in the European Heart Journal, found that in men with a BMI of 20 and over, the risk of heart failure increased by 16% with every BMI unit, after adjustments for factors that could affect the findings, such as age, year of enlistment into the Swedish armed forces, other diseases, parental education, blood pressure, IQ, muscle strength and fitness.

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