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Education and the Marriage Market

February 14, 2012 | Karin

An op-ed headline caught my attention this weekend, The M.R.S. and the Ph.D, by Stephanie Coontz. Coontz uses Valentine’s Day as a reason to revisit the familiar debate as to whether highly educated women basically educate themselves out of the marriage market. While this piece has a catchy headline, it left me with more questions than answers.

Coontz sets up the current debate, and then argues that now is a great time for educated women to find relationships:

As Kate Bolick wrote in a much-discussed article in The Atlantic last fall, American women face “a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men — those who are better educated and earn more than they do.” Educated women worry that they are scaring away potential partners, and pundits claim that those who do marry will end up with unsatisfactory matches. They point to outdated studies suggesting that women with higher earnings than their husbands do more housework to compensate for the threat to their mates’ egos, and that men who earn less than their wives are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction.

Is this really the fate facing educated heterosexual women: either no marriage at all or a marriage with more housework and less sex? Nonsense. That may have been the case in the past, but no longer. For a woman seeking a satisfying relationship as well as a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated.

This is a bold assertion. On what does she base her claim? She writes:

The result has been a historic reversal of what the economist Elaina Rose calls the “success” penalty for educated women. By 2008, the percentage of college-educated white women ages 55 to 59 who had never been married was down to 9 percent, just 3 points higher than their counterparts without college degrees. And among women 35 to 39, there was no longer any difference in the percentage who were married.

In making her argument, her definition of “highly educated” is someone who is college-educated. Over the last couple of years, I have seen a number of studies showing big distinctions in marriage numbers between women who earn a college degree as compared to women who earn a graduate degree. I think this is worth exploring, and would have liked to see Coontz address whether she believes there is any such distinction.

Furthermore, I wonder if there are any differences among women depending on what the women do with those degrees. Is there a difference in marriage rates between those women who, for example, earn an MBA and go into investment banking in New York City versus those who earn a undergraduate degree to become teachers?

Finally, Coontz leaves out a big part of the marriage question—babies. The article left me wanting more of a discussion of how children fit into this.

I appreciate Coontz analyzing this topic, but I would have liked to see her address different education levels, what women do with their education and babies. However, I did learn two new terms from her piece: (1) hypergamy, which is the cultural idea that women must marry up; and (2) an alternative meaning for Ph.D is “putting hubby down.”

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