GOING TO UNIVERSITY is supposed to be a mind-broadening experience. That assertion is presumably made in contradistinction to training for work straight after school, which might not be so stimulating. But is it actually true? Jessika Golle of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, thought she would try to find out. Her result, however, is not quite what might be expected. As she reports in Psychological Science this week, she found that those who have been to university do indeed seem to leave with broader and more inquiring minds than those who have spent their immediate post-school years in vocational training for work. However, it was not the case that university broadened minds. Rather, work seemed to narrow them.
Dr Golle came to this conclusion after she and a team of colleagues studied the early careers of 2,095 German youngsters. During the period under investigation (the system was modified slightly this year), Germany had three tracks in its schools: a low one for pupils who would most probably leave school early and enter vocational training; a high one for those almost certain to enter university; and an intermediate one, from which there was a choice between the academic and vocational routes.
The team used two standardised tests to assess their volunteers. One was of personality traits (openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and extroversion). The other was of attitudes (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional). They administered both tests twice—once towards the end of each volunteer’s time at school, and then again six years later. Of the original group, 382 were on the intermediate track, and it was on these that the researchers focused. University beckoned for 212 of them. The remaining 170 opted for vocational training and a job.
When it came to the second round of tests, Dr Golle found that the personalities of those who had gone to university had changed not a statistically detectable jot. Those who had undergone vocational training and then got jobs were not that much changed in personality, either—except in one crucial respect. They had become more conscientious.
That sounds like a good thing, certainly compared with the common public image of undergraduates as a bunch of pampered layabouts. But changes in attitude that the researchers recorded were more worrying. In the university group, again, none were detectable. But those who had chosen the vocational route showed marked drops in interest in tasks that are investigative and enterprising in nature. And that might restrict their choice of careers.
Some investigative and enterprising jobs, such as scientific research, are, indeed off limits to the degreeless. But many, particularly in Germany, with its tradition of vocational training, are not. The researchers mention, for example, computer programmers, finance-sector workers, estate agents and entrepreneurs as careers requiring these attributes. If Dr Golle is correct, and changes in attitude brought about by the very training Germany prides itself on are narrowing people’s choices, that is indeed a matter of concern.