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University education has benefits beyond the degree

The benefits of a university education go beyond academic knowledge, a new study shows it may also improve “non-cognitive” skills like extraversion, conscientiousness and agreeability.

The impact of a university education is especially noticeable among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the researchers said.

Researchers who measured the character development of university students believe that the new skills come from being exposed to new peer groups, as well as being encouraged to try new extracurricular activities in sports, the arts and politics.

“We see quite clearly that students’ personalities change when they go to university,” lead researcher Dr. Sonja Kassenboehmer said in a press release. “Universities provide an intensive new learning and social environment for adolescents, so it is not surprising that this experience could impact on students’ personality.”

The team of researchers led by Kassenboehmer, a senior research fellow at Monash University, used five different personality traits to measure students’ character skills and how they developed: open-minded to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These are traits frequently used by psychologists to describe differences in character skills, and they have been linked to altruism, personal health and well-being, and desirability as a job candidate.

The team followed 575 different Australian young people over a period of eight years, using the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey.

Their analysis found that each year in university brought growth in extraversion and other character traits, particularly for young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“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,” Kassenboehmer said.

The study is the first real look at how a university education can affect the growth and development of important character skills.

The study has been published in the journal Oxford Economic Papers. Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council’s Early Career Discovery Program and Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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