College-educated women are now as likely as their less-educated peers to marry at some point in their lives, according to a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families.
The “marriage gap” between educated and less-educated women has been closing for a while — in 1950, white college-educated women were 15% less likely than their high-school graduate peers to marry by 40. By 2010, economist Betsey Stevenson found that gap had narrowed to 2%. And now, according to the study’s authors, NYU sociologists Paula England and Jonathan Bearak, it’s closed entirely.
And when you look at who’s currently married (i.e. not divorced or widowed), educated people have a big advantage, the study, based on a national sample of people born between 1958 and 1965, also found. Seventy-five percent of women with college degrees are married at age 40, compared to 70% of high school graduates and just 60% of high school dropouts. For men, the gap is bigger — at 40, about 75% of college graduate men are currently married, compared with about 50% of male high school dropouts. And the gap is biggest of all for black men — around 70% of black men with a college degree are married at 40, but just over 30% of those without a high school diploma are.
England told me the reason for this change had to do with changing views of the purpose of marriage. She says “marriage has become more optional” than ever since having sex, living together, and having kids out of wedlock are all less stigmatized than ever. As a result, couples across classes and education levels feel like they have to “have their economic act together” before they get married. Well-educated couples may be able to get good jobs, insurance, and achieve financial stability together in order to get hitched — but less-educated couples might not be able to do it. Since they, too, have absorbed the message that marriage is something you do when you’re financially stable, they may delay it indefinitely. Education is becoming more of a stepping-stone to marriage than a barrier to it.
The new study also suggests married people with higher education are less likely to get divorced. Previous research on education and divorce has been mixed, with one study finding that the most-educated women had the lowest risk of divorce, and another pointing to a more complex relationship between the two. But England and Bearak’s data showed less-educated people, especially men, divorcing at higher rates over the course of their lives.
England says that’s partly because better-educated people tend to make more money, and financial security can smooth over some marital conflicts. He adds that “education makes men more liberal, and more egalitarian towards their wives” — educated men are more likely to treat their wives like equals which unsurprisingly makes women more likely to stay married to them.
The study may also hint at the affect of education on women’s happiness. Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies and CCF’s director of research and public education, says that in terms of women’s actual happiness, divorce rates are probably even more important than marriage rates. She explains, “never-married women in their 50s and beyond are almost as happy, on average, as happily married women — and both groups are much happier than women who divorce.”
When it comes to the study’s larger social implications, Coontz says it shows “a class divergence in access to stable relationships. Increasingly, them that has — in terms of education and financial stability — gets.” People who are doing well in the professional realm are often rewarded in the personal realm too.