Go to Briefing Report
Expert Contact: Betsey Stevenson, Ph.D.
Release Contact: Stephanie Coontz
The marriage prospects of educated women have been hotly debated in the media in recent weeks. Are highly educated women more likely to wind up single than their less-educated counterparts? Would they do better to settle for a “good enough” man before they miss their chance altogether? Or are educated women now MORE likely to marry then their less-educated counterparts? But if so, do higher expectations make them more discontented with marriage?
In a briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, economists Betsey Stevenson and Adam Isen crunch the data from 1950 to 2008 and come up with some surprising findings. Yes, college-educated white women (unlike college-educated black women) are less likely to marry than their less-educated counterparts. But when they do marry, they are less likely to divorce, so that by age 40, they are MORE likely to be married than other women, many of whom have already divorced.
In addition, college-educated women who are unmarried at age 40 are twice as likely to marry in the next 10 years as unmarried 40-year-olds with just a high school degree. Educated women are also more likely to report themselves happy in their marriages than less-educated women.
Highlights of the Report
- Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, African-American women do not face a “marriage penalty” when they acquire higher education. In fact, black women who have graduated from college or completed some college are more likely to marry than less-educated groups of black women.
- For white women, the situation is more complicated. White women who complete college remain slightly less likely to marry than most other white women, although they are now more likely to marry than women who never finished high school. At age 40, the time after which sociologists have traditionally considered a never-married woman a lifelong single, 86 percent of college-educated white women have married, compared to 90 percent of women with some college, 88 percent of high school graduates, and 81 percent of high school dropouts.
- But this is a huge change from 1950, when only 74 percent of white college graduates had married by age 40, compared to 93 percent of high-school dropouts, 90 percent of high school graduates, and 92 percent of women who had completed some college. Marriage rates rose for all women between 1950 and 1960, but leveled off for women without a college degree in the 1960s. Marriage rates of college-educated women continued to rise until 1980, closing much of the educational gap in marriage. In the 1980s, marriage rates for ALL women began to fall, though college-educated women are the only group of women whose marriage rates in the 21st century are higher than they were at any point in the 1950s.
- Here’s the source of much confusion in news reports: At age 40, college-educated white women are MORE likely to be married than any other group of women. That’s because the divorce rates of college-educated women have dropped so much that those who do marry are far more likely to still be married at age 40 than their less-educated counterparts.
- What about never-married educated women who hope to marry, but want to wait until they have established themselves professionally or are still holding out for “Mister Right”? Not only has the average age of first marriage been rising, but so has the range of ages at which women marry for the first time. It used to be that a woman who was unmarried at age 35 or 40 was unlikely to ever marry at all. Today, 15 percent of all women who are unmarried at age 40 do marry in the next 10 years, and that rises to 20 percent for college-educated women. College-educated women have a much greater likelihood of marrying at an older age than women of any other educational level.
- Finally, college-educated women are more likely than any other group of women to report themselves happy in their marriage, whatever the level of their family income, and they are much less likely to think that “financial security is the main benefit of marriage.”
The complete briefing paper, “Who’s Getting Married? Education and Marriage Today and in the Past,” is available below.Go to Briefing Report
For Further Information
For more information on this paper, contact Betsey Stevenson, Assistant Professor, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; firstname.lastname@example.org; 215.898.3019 or 267.495.6441 (cell).
On marriage patterns among low-income women and African American women, contact Linda Burton, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology; email@example.com; 919.660.5609.
On the role of marriage in the lives of educated white and black women in the 1950s and early 1960s, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College; firstname.lastname@example.org; 360.352.8117.
For information on the physical and emotional health of single women and men, both never married & formerly married — including the fact that never-married women do about as well as married women in well-being, and better than divorced ones — contact Kristen W. Springer, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University; email@example.com; 732.932.7516; and Deborah Carr, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University; firstname.lastname@example.org; 732.309.1807.
On the relationship between women’s educational level and “shotgun marriages” or nonmarital births, contact Paula England, Professor of Sociology, Stanford University; email@example.com; 650.815.9308.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.Topics: Gender & Sexuality