Does higher education change non-cognitive skills?

There is a new study on this very important question:

We examine the effect of university education on students’ non-cognitive skills (NCS) using high-quality Australian longitudinal data. To isolate the skill-building effects of tertiary education, we follow the education decisions and NCS—proxied by the Big Five personality traits—of 575 adolescents over eight years. Estimating a standard skill production function, we demonstrate a robust positive relationship between university education and extraversion, and agreeableness for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The effects are likely to operate through exposure to university life rather than through degree-specific curricula or university-specific teaching quality. As extraversion and agreeableness are associated with socially beneficial behaviours, we propose that university education may have important non-market returns.

That is from Sonja C. Kassenboehmer, Felix Leung, and Stefanie Schurer in the new Oxford Economic Papers.  Here is a much older, non-gated version.

These results seem broadly consistent with the 1960s “schooling of society,” conformist, Marxian critiques of education.  It is striking that higher education does not have more of a notable, measurable impact on either openness or conscientiousness.

In passing, I would like to note that I am not crazy about the term “non-cognitive” in this context.


The notion that going to college is likely to make you more socially suave seems highly plausible.

The less educated tend to be worried that their lack of education will be exposed, while the better educated tend to assume that what they don't know isn't worth knowing.

The classic video, "Private Universe," in which Harvard students and local blue collar young people are asked to explain why there are seasons is informative. The people in the video all give the same wrong answer -- because the Earth is further from the Sun in winter -- but the Harvard kids are extremely confident and extraverted about their wrong answers while the blue collar kids are halting and ashamed.

Except the earth is further from the sun, that's what causes seasons. The earth is permanently tilted on its axis of rotation, and the parts further from the sun during the earth's rotation around the sun get colder.

It’s not the distance that causes the seasons, it’s the angle of the sunlight - meaning less per unit area in winter. The change in distance is negligible.

Axial tilt is absolutely correct and the only relevant answer, but 'The change in distance is negligible' is a judgment call, as the change is more than 3% -

But when it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere it's winter in the Southern. So unless the earth's orbit is a perfect circle -- which it isn't -- then the answer must entirely be the tilt, and not at all the distance.

That's B.S. (I think). Do you think a planet tilted on it's side would have pronounced seasons, in the absence of atmosphere? Recall heat is convention, conduction and radiation. You're pinning all your bets on radiation, which strikes me as wrong.

Bonus trivia: why is the sky blue? A physicist dissertation topic...

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The "angle" is a red herring I think (see here for the conventional and incomplete answer: Absent an atmosphere, even the "angle" would fail to give winter I'm pretty sure. So it's not so much the "angle" as the fact the sunlight has to go through a greater atmosphere before striking earth's surface during winter, and, as such, is attenuated by atmosphere.

In short, "distance" is an acceptable answer, in colloquial English, to the answer as to why there's seasons on earth. The greater distance the sun's rays have to go through atmosphere to reach the surface of the earth during winter. But, a definitive answer has to await from a physicist, since the internet answers are unclear.

The days are longer during the summer than during the winter, i.e., energy from the sun is hitting the north/south for longer. Also the Sun reaches higher elevations in the daytime sky, i.e., less atmosphere attenuating the incoming energy.

How does distance from the sun cause the length of the day to change and for a changing elevation of the sun during the day?

A tilted planetary axis explains it all.

It is a completely established basic fact of meteorology that the seasons are due to the variations in angles. The effect includes both the length of daylight and the angle of the sun to the ground.

The earth is actually closest to the Sun once a year, in January. In the absence of other factors, this would result in relatively more intense summers and winters in the southern hemisphere since the tilt and distance effects occur at the same time. This can certainly be measured but in practice it's a secondary effect. The big variation in solar energy received is due to the tilt.

@Jim Birch - we all agree "angles" is a factor, but the open issue is what percent is angles and what percent is atmosphere? Read this: and tell me what percentage of the sun's radiation is absorbed by the greater atmosphere the sun's rays must pass though during winter (due to the earth's tilt)? Make sure to reference the Beer-Lambert law for extra credit.

My intuition tells me atmosphere might be 30% to 60% of the total, with "angles" (flux per unit area) the remainder, but not sure.

Oh gosh, Ray, that's a howler. But I bet you said it confidently :-)

@Allstair - The only howler I make is a rare blunder in chess or when I visit the zoo and trade nods with my simian ancestor.

Read this: and tell me what percentage of the sun's radiation is absorbed by the greater atmosphere the sun's rays must pass though during winter (due to the earth's tilt)? Make sure to reference the Beer-Lambert law for extra credit.

This is actually a bid sad; as I recall, this was covered in 5th grade.

Its a good example demonstrating that 12 years is more than enough to provide a quite good basic education - literacy, numeracy, basic "how the world works" science, standard culture, civics, and some real world skills.

I'd be interested to see a comparison of the improvement in these "non-cognitive" skills from 4 years in college vs. 4 years in the Marines.

'I am not crazy about the term “non-cognitive” in this context'

Baldassare Castiglione would undoubtedly agree.

What's the executive summary? I don't care to read a whole paper.

Anyway, the TC post is consistent with the observation that education is signaling.

The whole book, Ray.

And the executive summary is that the skills that make one a successful courtier can be learned.

This book is underrated. It shows how many current arguments are really ancient.

The misnomer 'non-cognitive skills' arose because people don't like saying 'intelligence' or 'IQ', and prefer saying 'cognitive ability'. 'Non-cognitive skills' should really be called 'non-IQ skills'.

we follow the education decisions and NCS—proxied by the Big Five personality traits

Isn't the entire notion of the Big 5 based on studies that indicate that these traits tend to be stable? And that this why they are regarded as "personality traits" rather cultural habits?

It is not surprising that higher education (especially "elite" education) affects cultural habits. It is also obvious that different institutions affect cultural habits in different ways. Many people seem to have noticed that Harvard graduates are a lot more stuck up about having gone to Harvard than Yale or Columbia grads are about their alma maters.

You can always tell a graduate of Harvard, Yale, or Columbia but you can't tell them much.

Find housing, purchase toilet paper, keep a schedule. Mormons send the kids on a mission where they learn the skills. It is relevant. I have tenants who cannot understand an electric bill. I have seen entire groups of poor people evicted and sent to LA urban camps because they do not understand the electric bill, it matters.

"a robust positive relationship between university education and extraversion, and agreeableness for students from disadvantaged backgrounds": life can be delish with a sunny disposish.

College is a social experience, so it's not surprising that college students become more sociable. My college experience was somewhat different, in that I already had a family, so I never resided in a dorm, belonged to a fraternity, attended college parties, went on spring break with college friends, etc. When I went to work for a large law firm after graduation, where the social experience is much the same as college, it was only then that I realized I was different because my social experience in college and law school was different. I mention my own experience because it's not nearly as unique as when I was a student. Indeed, as I understand it, students today may be more isolated socially than I was, with many complaining about loneliness. Maybe data in the future will reflect a diminished socialization function of college.

One might also consider the social experiences of (for example) black students at mostly white colleges. Of course, there are the extreme experiences of social exclusion, as when a black student at Yale is questioned whether she belongs on campus, as well as the more common experiences of social exclusion, as when black students are excluded from social clubs, parties, trips during spring break, etc. To be clear, I wasn't aware of my different social experience until later, while black students are very much aware of it. Also, as I understand it, many of the best black high school students often choose lower rated historically black colleges for the social experience.

I will point out that there's a celebrity economist who by his own choice did not have the typical college socialization experience, which did not adversely affect him; indeed, I believe he has indicated that avoiding the typical college socialization contributed to his success both in school and later in life. From that perspective, the socialization function of college is a net negative.

"in that I already had a family, so I never resided in a dorm"

I had a family, but that didn't stop me from needing to reside in a dorm. Or rather, when my dad changed jobs after I graduated from high school, consulting out of the city of my college, he moved the family to a town support of the city so my student aid would not force me to live with family. The consulting gig was only a year so the family was soon 80 miles away.

My dad believed living on campus in the dorm was very important.

He became a "traveler" in the context of his family by going to college in Inddiana after leaving Maine for CCC work in the West, planting trees or something. Not liking outdoor work that much, he became the unit paper pusher between doing the dish washing, laundry, cleaning around camp. His brother joined the Navy, but then returned to Maine, like most of the family. But my dad never got closer than New York, much to his mom's frustration.

For my boomer generation, mobility seems mostly driven by going to college or serving in the military. My brother's wife had never left Kansas until they married and they traveled to St Louis so he could take training classes. She attended college as a day dodger from home.

I see Tyler advocating mobility, but opposing the multiple government policies that made Americans mobile: the military draft and short term service plus the high subsidies provided to kids leaving home for college. Both forced mostly young people to be more adaptable and tolerant, and less conservative and resistent to change.

My own family meant a wife and child. Duh. My parents died when I was a child. We are a reflection of our own experiences. That a reader would interpret my reference to family as a reference to my parents makes me wonder what people are thinking.

This seems right to me. I've long been saying that what universities do is that they teach young people to be less barbaric. They internalize more elite manners and patterns of thinking. This is basically the one "active ingredient" to the whole college experience. It's the reason why, if I had kids, I would want them to go to college.

I'm interested in purifying that active ingredient, which means throwing out as much of the inactive ingredients as possible. How do we bottle the aspect of college that actually makes a difference? It's crazy how understudied this is. If we found it, I'm pretty sure we'd discover that it would benefit people well before they are of college age. And we'd probably find curricula that concentrate it. I have a feeling that serendipity will always play some role in de-barbarianizing young people, but the wise can still design an environment in which the probability of the right sort of serendipity goes up. That should be our goal in designing university education.

Does it change these skills or does it hone them? If you have an inherent ability or outlook that is useful for an activity, you're more likely to pursue it because it comes to you fairly quickly. Practice will improve your skills at any level, but those without the natural aptitude won't improve as much.

I think a large part of university experience is being apart from your parents in a significant way right after adolescence. So yes your social skills rise in that period for a lot of reasons. Would they rise just as much if you left home and worked and rented your own apartment? Don't know but that is the relevant question.

When I went to college, there were still professors who had taught in the '60s and '70s. They said the returning vets were the best students because they had already grown up by the time they started. Most of these vets hadn't seen combat, but they had lived on their own for several years.

Why exactly would we expect college students to be more open or conscientious?

They have just spent four years living in an environment where sending the wrong signals can result in severe consequences to life outcomes. College is now about two basic things: getting into further educational programs and getting jobs. The former highly rewards people who are conformist and the small amount of novelty sought is not well understood so students have to take real risks to go off the beaten path. The latter, well in this day and age that is a networking game and of course everything one does enters Google's databases where it can be stripped of context and used to bludgeon you if you did something too atypical. You have to be extremely brave, stupid, or accomplished to be free to even debate someone who might end up "no platformed" and have that mess last for the rest of your career. Most students are average so they keep their heads down and deviate only slightly from what is generally tolerated and understood. At no point is college somewhere you can explore and be open to new experiences, everything you do carries reputation risks for the rest of your life.

Likewise, conscientiousness seems odd to expect from a modern college education. Students are encouraged and expected to report problems to the correct branch of the bureaucracy for whatever ails them: interpersonal problems, academic challenges, and all manner of diversity. These days it is expected that top students will work with tutors, advisers, and a small army of support staff ... why would we expect students to develop self-discipline? Likewise, our expectation of college students has dropped to near complete bacchanalia; so they routinely are not forced to make sacrifices. Worse still, most of the official and unofficial character assessments care far more about what you say than do; flashing a hashtag or saying the right sorts of things with the right emotions is far more valued than anything a college student actually does.

College has become signalling. Signalling today is about being seen doing and liking the "right" things. Should we be surprised that things which endanger this signalling are not in evidence in students?

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The least hereditary psycho-social traits seem to be those most related to interpersonal interactions, so, if education is to change people, perhaps it should focus on socializing people interpersonally, where education can clearly make a difference, rather than on the somewhat futile effort of significantly changing the IQ of a school aged child.

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