A significantly lower percentage of young men are now obtaining college degrees compared to women. We have known this for some time now. As Jon Birger pointed out in his 2015 Date-onomics, and as the mass media trumpeted widely, among Americans in their 20s with college degrees, women outnumber men by about 5.5 to 4. A re-circulation of this data on Twitter recently produced a great deal of commentary. That was followed by a new study by Daniel Lichter and others that documented a shortage of single men with the kind of income and job prospects that women say they are looking for—which likewise produced a lot of media chatter.
These days, both men and women prefer to marry someone with a bachelor’s degree. And despite feminist denials, women continue to look for men whose income exceeds their own. Thus, we are not surprised to see that many pundits are now asserting that the relative shortage of college-educated men is hurting women. How? First, by supposedly lowering the marriage rates of educated women. Second, by pushing many such women to marry men with less education. This supposedly leads to less than ideal unions. Apparently, agonizing about the plight of higher-status women being “forced” to either “marry down” or avoid marriage altogether is a real 21st century thing, and not just a Downton Abbey plot line.
I investigated all of this for a recent two-part series I authored for the Institute for Family Studies. My analysis looked at the experience of married Americans interviewed by the prestigious General Social Survey over the past five decades and at recent published research on the divorce rates of college-educated women married to men without degrees.
The GSS verifies that women with college degrees are increasingly likely to marry men without them. For example, among those ages 33 to 42 during the past five decades, this percentage went from 26 percent in the 1970s to 40 percent in the past decade. Meanwhile, the comparable percentage of men with college degrees married to women without degrees plummeted dramatically, from 54 percent to 17 percent. More women are marrying “down” educationally, while less men are doing so.
However, the GSS also shows that college-educated women are much more likely to be married, and less likely to be cohabiting or just single. From 2012 through 2018 (when the GSS measured cohabitation), among women 25 to 40 years old with bachelor’s degrees, 57 percent were married, and 8 percent cohabiting. This compares to 48 percent and 9 percent for college-educated men of that age group. It is those without college degrees who are being left out of marriage the most. Only about 4 in 10 men or women ages 25 to 40 without bachelor’s degrees were married, while almost 1 in 5 were cohabiting. College-degreed women are certainly not being pushed out of the marriage market by a shortage of similarly educated men.
Meanwhile, research shows that women with college degrees who marry “down” are not more likely to get divorced. And according to the GSS, at least in recent years among those 25 to 40 years old, they are not less likely than those who married college-educated men to identify their marriages as “very happy.” The idea that women who make this choice typically suffer a great deal because of it is not supported by the GSS or recent divorce studies.
Looking at whether both a woman and her husband both have a bachelor’s degree or not ignores a lot of important facts, including men’s much ballyhooed relative job or income prospects. In 2017 for example, the median salary for electricians, plumbers and wind turbine technicians was between $52,000 and $54,000. All have top-end salaries much higher than this, and low-end salaries equivalent to recent college graduates with humanities degrees. All are male-dominated fields, none require a college degree. By contrast, according to the latest government statistics, a 25 to 29-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in English, Elementary Education, Psychology, Humanities, or Fine Arts averages about $40,000, while carrying loads of student loan debt. So, does a woman marrying a man without a college education get someone with less income prospects than she has? It depends. If she is a Fine Arts major married to an electrician with eight years of experience, probably not.
The fact is that the so-called shortage of men obtaining four-year college degrees is only a problem if men do not do anything else that is challenging, pays well, and has a future. And there are plenty of options without college requirements that do precisely that. Heck, those who opt out of four-year colleges for a skilled trade can often be earning income for years while their college-enrolled peers stack up student-loan debt and make almost nothing. And a lot of trade work is interesting, varying, and intellectually challenging. Maybe that bright, hard-working guy without a college degree is not a bad marriage prospect after all.
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