College Graduates Marry Other College Graduates Most of the Time

A look at education level and the marriage market
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Lots of people are pushing marriage on young women. For those with less than a college degree, the National Campaign Against Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the National Marriage Project are promoting marriage so women won't be poor (mothers).* And for those with elite educations, a Princeton alumna says young women should find a husband before graduation so they won't be bored by a non-Ivy League dimwit for the rest of their lives.

(All this marriage promotion shouldn't be confused with marriage rights promotion. Should it?)

Marriage markets are very complicated. People can marry (and divorce) anyone they want whenever they want (subject to legal restrictions), or not. People can move to marry, or marry and then move. They can marry up, down, sideways, or internationally. After divorce, they can repeat the process, with variation.

With the economy the way it is and sequestration threatening the jobs of government bureaucrats and the social scientists who depend on them, demographers are delighted by this complexity, since it assures a steady stream of unanswered questions to generate demand for our profession (another good reason to repeal DOMA).

Anyway, some information about marriage and education: Take all the people ages under age 50 who told the American Community Survey in 2011 that they got (heterogamously) married for the first time in 2011. Break them down by education and sex, and look at the education of the people they married.

The first thing you notice is the BA/non-BA gap. Of this population, 71 percent of college graduates married another college graduate. Women college graduates were less likely to hold rank, with just 65 percent of them marring above the BA line, compared with 78 percent of male college grads. This isn't surprising considering women earn the majority of BA degrees. But it's not as big a deal as it might seem for gender equality, because—don't forget—unmarried men earn more than unmarried women at every level of education. When I looked at these numbers for 25- to 34-year-olds in Atlanta, for example, I found that 46 percent of the women with BAs who married men without BAs still had a husband who earned more than them. That is, marrying down the education ladder didn't stop them from marrying up the income ladder.

Here is the rest of the breakdown, offered without further comment except a caution that there are a lot of ways to slice these things. The figures show the percentage of spouses at each education level for the under-50s who just got married for the first time, by education level, first for women and then for men. For example, the first graph shows that 25 percent of newlywed women with PhDs married husbands with PhDs. The colors are intended to highlight the BA/non-BA divide, with non-grads in bluish and grads in reddish.

cohen_womenmarry.jpg cohen_menmarry.jpg

Source: My calculations from the 2011 American Community Survey, from IPUMS (which tacked on the spouses' education for those with a present and identifiable spouse).


This post originally misidentified the group behind this initiative. We regret the error.

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Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

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