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The new economic face of marriage

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The opening line of the Sinatra song “Love and Marriage” might need to be updated to include to, “Love, a college degree, and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”

During the past 25 years, marriage rates have been climbing for women with college and graduate degrees, while women who lack an education beyond high school have seen their marriage rates plummet, according to research from Richard V. Reeves, Isabel Sawhill and Eleanor Krause at the Brookings Institution. Drilling down into educational levels shows that the country’s most educated women -- those with professional degrees such as law degrees as well as graduate degrees -- have seen their marriage rates surpass that of women with only bachelor’s degrees.

That reflects how a once-traditional institution is getting an overhaul, courtesy of women’s growing educational and career ambitions. Those American women who are most capable of economic independence -- a college education is linked with higher lifelong earnings -- are returning to the institution. The upshot may be that opposite-sex spouses may enjoy more egalitarian relationships in the coming decades.

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“It looks then as though women’s independence hasn’t led to a rejection of the matrimonial institution, as much as its transformation,” the Brookings authors wrote.

And that may lead to what the researchers say is a new twist for marriage: an institution that furthers feminism, rather than thwarting it. Husbands, for instance, will likely be forced to get involved more at home, while also advocating for more support in the workplace for fathers.

More broadly, though, the trend signals another way in which the country is dividing between the haves and the have-nots. America is becoming a country of “assortive mating,” when people seek out partners who are similar to them. College-educated women not only earn more than less educated women, but they are more likely to end up in a “power couple” situation, with a spouse who has a similar educational background.

Still, there are questions about how the marriage rate will play out as the youngest millennials reach their prime marriage years. Women now outnumber men in college enrollment, which could pose a problem when they search for a partner, according to the rules of assortive mating.

An earlier study from Sawhill pointed out that there are only 85 men for every 100 women who are 25 to 35 years old and who are college educated, suggesting a shortage of available college-educated men for that cohort. As a result, more women with college degrees may end up looking farther afield and marry into a “mixed-collar” marriage.

That would represent a 180-degree change from the traditional opposite-sex marriages of the 1960s and earlier, when men were more likely to have college degrees and marry women who were homemakers, rather than breadwinners.

Aside from whether there are demographic problems looming with a shortage of educated men, young Americans remain hopeful about marriage. About two-thirds of people under the age of 30 who have never tied the knot say they’d like to get married one day, The Pew Research Center found. What’s holding them back? A variety of familiar issues for the millennial generation, ranging from not being financially prepared to failing to find their soulmate. 

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