For males, the college premium and the marriage premium are roughly equal.  In the NLSY, for example, you earn 34% more if you’re a college grad, and 44% more if you’re a married male*:


When people – economists and non-economists alike – look at the size of that college premium, they usually conclude that more people should go to college.  On a personal level, they urge individuals to enroll.  On a policy level, they don’t just favor all the existing measures that encourage college attendance; they want government to redouble its efforts.

Funny thing, though.  When people – economists and non-economists alike – look at the size of the male marriage premium, they barely respond.  On a personal level, that 44% premium doesn’t lead them to urge men to marry.  On a policy level, the 44% premium probably wouldn’t even increase opposition to the marriage tax – much less inspire support for a massive government effort to encourage men to wed.

Why the discrepancy?

1. You could point out that (a) married women earn 10% less, and (b) more men can’t marry unless more women marry.  But the male marriage bonus vastly exceeds the female marriage penalty.  Indeed, the net premium for a couple almost exactly equals the college premium.

2. You could object that the marriage premium is largely selection rather than treatment.  But like the college premium, the real story is probably that it’s a mix of both.

3. You could object that men fail to marry despite the high premium because they would hate being married.  But you can say the same about school: Students give up because they find it super boring.

4. You could object that encouraging marriage restricts people’s freedom, but encouraging college doesn’t.  But this makes no sense.  If using taxes, subsidies, and regulations to make college more attractive doesn’t “restrict freedom,” why would using taxes, subsidies, and regulations to make marriage more attractive “restrict freedom”?

5. You could say that education has positive externalities, but marriage doesn’t.  But this is irrelevant, because the people pushing college are focusing on the private return.  In any case, the externalities of marriage are far less debatable than the externalities of education.

I could be missing something; if you think so, let me know.  My considered judgment, though, is that the double standard is all too real.  People should push both education and marriage – or neither.

* I interact married and number of children (CHILDNUM) with gender dummies to allow the effects of family status to vary by gender.  AFQT is the NLSY’s IQ measure.