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If You Have a Degree Will He Want to Put a Ring on It?

Sep 21, 2011

Historically, people without a college degree were more likely to get married at a young age. However, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that this trend has reversed. The Education Insider examines possible causes, including economic forces and the changing role of gender differences.

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By Megan Driscoll

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Degree-Holders Say 'I Do'

In a study released in October 2010, the Pew Research Center found that, as of 2008, 62% of 30-year-olds with a college degree either had been married or were married at the time. By contrast, only 60% of young adults without a college degree had been married.

While this isn't a huge difference, what's surprising is the fact that the figures are higher at all for college-educated individuals. This is a reversal of a long standing 20th century trend in which young adults without a college degree were much more likely to get married. For example, in 1990, 75% of 30-year-olds without a degree were married, as compared to only 69% of those with a degree.

The difference between the 1990 and 2008 figures do reflect an overall decline in the number of young adults getting married, whether or not they have a college degree. In fact, in 2008, the median age at individuals' first marriages was the same (28) for both groups. But the number of married 30-year-olds without a college degree is still declining faster.

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Can He Afford the Ring?

The Pew Research Center points to a couple of possible reasons for the change. The economy seems to be one important factor: as it becomes harder and harder for men without a college degree to earn a living, they become more and more likely to cohabitate rather than marry.

Between 1990 and 2008, the inflation-adjusted salaries of men between the ages of 24 and 35 rose five percent for those with a college degree and dropped 12% for those without. At the same time, the Census Bureau shows that the number of couples cohabitating outside of wedlock doubled, and over 80% of cohabiters don't have a degree. Given the high costs associated with weddings, it seems that men without a degree - and therefore with lower earnings - are choosing to wait.

But low-earning men aren't the only factor in the change. In fact, while men are delaying their first marriages, a man's overall probability of marriage by educational attainment level has remained relatively flat over the decades. However, in the 20th century there was a significant gender gap. Women without a college degree were much more likely to be married at any age in 1990 than educated women, and they were also more likely to tie the knot at a young age.

That's changed. As of 2008, women with degrees were just as likely to be married as women without, and they're increasingly likely to be wed at a young age. This may be due in part to the increasing number of women who hold college degrees. In 2010, almost 30% of women aged 25 and older had at least a bachelor's degree. It stands to reason that when there are more women with college degrees overall, it's more likely that there will be more married women with college degrees.

And while the question of married vs. single may seem academic, the Pew Research Center points out that marital status can have a significant effect on income. Even when you account for the fact that married households typically include multiple earners, you find an income gap: The median adjusted household income of married adults in single-earner households was $63,000 in 2008, as compared to $53,000 for unmarried adults. This gap remains regardless of educational attainment.

Women aren't just earning more degrees than their female ancestors - census data shows that they've surpassed men in the number of both bachelor's and graduate degrees earned.

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