UW News

April 1, 2004

Education is disappearing as barrier to marriage, study finds

Higher education is not the hindrance to marriage and motherhood it once was, new research shows.

As recently as 1980, the more years of graduate school a woman had completed, the less likely she was to be married later in life.

But this difference — still often bemoaned in the press — is fast disappearing, according to a new study by Elaina Rose, a University of Washington associate professor of economics.

“There used to be a marked tradeoff between higher education and marriage,” Rose said, “but that is no longer the case.”

Rose presented her findings this week to the Economic Demography Workshop at the Population Association of America meeting.

To document the dramatic shrinkage in what Rose calls the “success gap” during the 1980s and 1990s, she analyzed millions of census records and tracked the education and marriage status of Americans in the 40–44 age group.

In 1980, a woman that age who had completed three years of graduate school was 14 percentage points less likely to be married than her counterpart with only a high school diploma. By 2000, that 14-point difference had melted to 5.

Rose was initially surprised by her findings.

Conventional wisdom has it that women tend to “marry up” — they marry men who are more successful — a phenomenon known as hypergamy. With increasing numbers of highly educated women flooding the “marriage market” in the 1980s and ’90s, Rose expected to see fewer of them finding mates.

While she did find in the 1980 census a strong likelihood for women to marry better-educated men, that tendency evaporated over the next two decades.

Does this mean that economic theory doesn’t work here?

“Not at all,” Rose said. “It means that the market is adjusting to accommodate the increased supply of educated women.

“The very nature of marriage is changing,” she added. “It has become less about what economists refer to as ‘specialization and exchange’ — wife taking responsibility for the home while the husband brings home the bacon — and more about shared roles and commonality of backgrounds.”

Another factor is that the overall decline in marriage is concentrated among the less educated — especially for men.

Because commentators such as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd have lamented the threat that career success poses to a woman’s opportunity for motherhood, Rose also tracked whether highly educated women have fewer children. She found that, while there is still a significant “motherhood success gap,” that gap is shrinking, too.

“The perception that women face a stark choice between career and family,” Rose said, “is becoming less accurate in each successive decade.”

The trend for highly educated women to marry was even mirrored in Rose’s own life.

“While the computer was crunching away on the data last year,” she said, “I (Ph.D. and all) met the man of my dreams, and got married.”

Rose’s research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.