Women who attend elite colleges earn more, but marry less

Women earn less than half of men's income

Attending an elite college such as Harvard or Yale is viewed as a path to success, but a new study finds that women enjoy the financial dividends more than men. 

Female graduates of the most competitive schools earn 14 percent more than women with comparable entrance-exam scores who went to less selective colleges, researchers at the University of Virginia and Tulane University found. Men, on the other hand, earned about the same regardless of their college decision, according to the working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Women who attended elite institutions -- defined as having average entrance-exam scores 100 points higher than less selective schools -- were more likely to remain in the workforce compared with women who attended the less competitive schools, the researchers found. 

Lower marriage rates

But when it comes to their personal lives, women grads of elite colleges were 3.9 percentage points less likely to be married two decades later, and those that did marry tended to do so later in in life. They also delayed having children, a trend with financial implications. 

But, the researchers said, it's not because the women are less marriage-worthy due to their elite educations. Women who attended elite colleges were more likely to pick spouses with advanced degrees, signaling their desire for high-achieving partners. 

Those spousal characteristics suggest "that the declining marriage rate for those women is more likely due to them setting higher bar for potential spouses than to their experiencing a worsening of marriage prospects," the researchers noted. 

"Opting out"

Opting to go to a more selective school also increased the odds of women going on to an advanced degree, by 4.8 percentage points, which also boosts potential earnings, according to the study.

The findings run counter to idea of "opting out," or that highly educated women are still stepping out of the labor force to take care of families or other obligations. While some women do stop working, those who went to upper-echelon schools were more likely to have part-time or paid work decades after graduation -- and married women with children saw the biggest impact on earnings if they went to an elite college, the study found.

The recent analysis, based on a 1996 survey of the graduating class of 1976, did not consider race or class. However, a 2017 study found that low-income students benefit from an elite degree, regardless of gender.