A Neglected Private Benefit of Education
By Bryan Caplan
One neglected lesson of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is that, due to changing family structure, the private return to education has risen even more than it seems. In the 60s, rates of marriage and divorce barely varied by education level. Now, however, there is a huge gap. Since being single is an expensive luxury, the breakdown in the family implies that the true standard of living gap between college grads, high school grads, and high school drop-outs is markedly larger than it seems.
Furthermore, because people tend to marry others with similar education levels, college grads don’t just get their historically high return to education. They can also reasonable expect to capture the historically high return to education of a well-educated spouse.
Has the family-status-adjusted return to education risen more for men or women? It’s tempting to answer, “Men, hands down.” After all, now that college-educated women are (a) far more likely to work and (b) make a lot more money, the spousal income that college-educated men can reasonable expect to capture has grown by leaps and bounds. On second thought, however, the answer’s less clear. In the 60s, going to college had little effect on a woman’s chance of raising kids without their father support. Now college drastically reduces that risk.
I freely admit that ability bias overstates the effect of education on family status. But I’m confident that a big causal effect remains. After all, when people hang out together, they’re a lot more likely to date and marry. That’s the way of the world. If you want to marry a doctor, hang out near a medical school. If you want to marry a college grad, go to college. After graduation, moreover, your education continues to have a big effect on who you work and socialize with. Selfishly speaking, you should heavily weigh these effects when you make educational plans.
None of this implies, however, that the social return to education is any bigger than it seems. If you go to college, you drastically improve your chance of a stable, lucrative marriage. But this is basically rent-seeking. In all probability you’re “stealing” your spouse from the person they would have married if they hadn’t met you. In the limit, if everyone went to college, the men and women in college would cease to be “special” – and going to college would cease to be a good way to find a premium spouse.