Ballparking the Marital Return to College
By Bryan Caplan
When education correlates with a good outcome, labor economists are usually eager to publicize the fact. There is, however, one glaring exception. Labor economists rarely announce that the well-educated are more likely to marry a well-educated spouse – and capture a big chunk of the financial benefits of their partner’s transcript.
The most obvious explanation for this omission is that the spousal education gradient is weak. But the opposite is true. Here’s a revealing table from Schwartz and Mare’s “Trends in Educational Assortative Marriage from 1940 to 2003” (Demography, 2005).
Assume you’re going to marry someone. Then if you only have a high school diploma, your probability of marrying a college grad is about 9% for both men and women. With a 4-year college degree, in contrast, your probability of marrying a college grad is roughly 65%. Quite a difference.
Of course, this pattern probably isn’t entirely causal. But a large causal effect is highly plausible. Indeed, there are two credible causal channels: convenience and compatibility. Convenience: If you’re a college grad, you’re more likely to meet fellow college grads. Compatibility: If you’re a college grad, you’re more likely to hit it off with whatever college grads you happen meet.
Now suppose that only half of the raw probability difference is causal. This still means that if you finish college, you’re a full 28 percentage-points ([65-9]*.5) more likely to marry a college grad than a high school grad. You could even say that the average college grad who plans to eventually marry can expect to enjoy the financial benefits of 1.28 sheepskins, rather just one. As long as the gender earnings gap continues, this marital return is larger for women than for men. But given modern women’s high employment rates, the marital return is clearly a big deal for men, too.
Why is the marital return so rarely discussed by either economists or laymen? Probably because talking about the marital return is self-defeating. The more you talk about it, the more you sound like a gold-digger – and the more you sound like a gold-digger, the less marriageable you become! The thoughtful response to the evidence, though, is neither denial nor gold-digging. Instead, the evidence underscores an age-old adage: Don’t marry for money; go where the rich people are and marry for love.