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Personality Traits Affect Young People’s Intention to Study

Press Release of January 9, 2015

DIW Berlin studied the effect of personality traits on intention to study – those more open to new experiences are more likely to attend college – the effect of personality is particularly high among children from non-academic families

In addition to factors such as school performance and parents’ educational background, personality is crucial as to whether students subsequently want to study or not. These are the findings of a study conducted by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin), based on data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study. Consequently, young people’s intention to study is greater, the more open they are to new experiences. The findings also hold true if other factors affecting intention to study are included in the calculations – such as household income, number of siblings, or migration background. “Particularly among children from non-academic families who are underrepresented at German colleges, openness to new experiences is relevant to study intention,” said DIW Berlin’s educational economists, Frauke Peter and Johanna Storck. Education policies should therefore place a stronger focus on developing non-cognitive skills, i.e., personality traits, in early childhood education. Mentoring programs or more detailed information about access to higher education could possibly ensure more “non-academic” children to be open to further education.

The Greater a Person’s Willingness to Cooperate, the Lower the Intention to Study

DIW Berlin’s economists Frauke Peter and Johanna Storck based their study on data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study – a representative survey of households and individuals collected on behalf of DIW Berlin by the fieldwork organization TNS Infratest Sozialforschung. In order to measure them, personality traits are divided into five dimensions: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, neuroticism (describes stress resistance), extraversion (drive and assertiveness) and agreeableness (willingness to cooperate). The present study is based on a sample of 1,000 students aged 17 who, between 2006 and 2013, indicated a preference for or against attending college.

The findings obtained using a linear probability model show that young people are more likely to want to study if they are more open to new experiences. In contrast, high values in the traits of agreeableness and neuroticism are associated with a lesser likelihood of wanting to take up studies after graduating from high school. The effects of the traits extraversion and conscientiousness, however, are not significant in almost all model specifications.

Package of Measures for Equal Opportunities

The results of DIW Berlin’s study are particularly relevant with regard to children from “non-academic” families. In the sample examined, 56 percent of children whose parents had not studied plan to attend college. This figure rises to 73 percent for children of academics. Since the latter are more often more open to new experiences and this trait is an important factor for intention to study, the difference between the study rates by parental education may remain. Peter and Storck went on to say that children from “non-academic” families are more concerned and this negatively affects these young people’s intention to study. They are probably often confronted with limited funding options and are concerned about not successfully completing their course of study, and therefore often choose vocational training as a form of safety net.

The two researchers think of several possible measures to increase equal opportunities. For example, special mentoring programs and providing information to assist in bridging the gap from high school to college and hence the major impact of the openness trait on intention to study which could possibly support children from “non-academic” families. For students who are prone to worrying, secure funding opportunities such as scholarships or more information about student loan schemes could facilitate them taking up a college education. DIW Berlin’s education experts are advocating that education policy in early childhood should also focus on non-cognitive skills such as personality traits.