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An Education for Marriage: Pew Report Confirms a College Degree Helps Relationships Succeed

Forget what your grandmother told you: Smart is sexy.

For years, newspapers and magazines have run stories about the so-called plight of the educated woman. The conventional wisdom was that women with a college or graduate degree were overqualified for love and unattractive to men. Social critics worried about this "success penalty" and predicted a crisis of smart but unhappy spinsters.

Fast forward to 2010 and think again: College-educated women under the age of 40 are just as likely to marry as their less educated sisters, according to a Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends project analysis of sixty years of Census data released this week, and researchers are waiting for the "crossover" in the next few years where the marriage rates of these female college grads will surpass those of women with less education.

Predicting the Future in 2006
I predicted this demographic change in 2006 in Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, arguing that the success penalty was a thing of the past for young women. More than 90% of men 25-40 say they are seeking -- or already married to -- a woman as or more intelligent, according to a nationally representative survey commissioned for my research. Forget what your grandmother told you: Smart is sexy.

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Indeed, good news for educated Americans abounds in this week's Pew report. Men and women of all educational backgrounds are delaying marriage, but college-educated young adults are slightly more likely to marry by age 30 and significantly more likely to marry by age 40. Among 35-to-39 year-olds, four-fifths of college-educated adults have married but only three-quarters of less educated adults have married. Perhaps most importantly, college graduates are more likely to be financially stable within those unions and less likely to divorce.

A college degree is a desirable trait in a mate, both as an investment in future earnings and in interesting dinner conversation. In mate-preference rankings, education/intelligence is in the top five most essential qualities in a mate -- ranked with love, maturity and dependability -- for both men and women, while in the 1930s it ranked 11th for men and 9th for women, according to research I'm conducting with Christie Boxer at the University of Iowa.

In addition, marriage has clear economic benefits, the Pew study notes: In 2008 the typical married adult had an adjusted household income of $76,652 versus $54,470 for the typical unmarried adult. Indeed, this gap among families has been growing for decades. In the 1940s they key economic difference between families was how much the husband earned. Today, it's whether a couple is married, and whether the wife works for pay.

On the other end of the educational spectrum, the picture is less rosy. Without job prospects, adequate household income and the commitment of marriage, it's increasingly difficult for couples to gather the resources -- both emotional and financial -- to keep a rocky relationship together. And this is a cycle that seems self-perpetuating: As an increasing number of less educated Americans cohabitate instead of marrying, more children are born into these fragile unions and at risk to be raised in poverty, with fewer educational resources of their own.

The Pew report notes that those without a college degree are more likely to experience divorce and multiple marriages than those with a college degree, findings which are in keeping with previous research. Steven P. Martin, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, has found that, of marriages in which the wife had only a high-school diploma, 38% dissolved in the first 10 years, compared with 16.5% in which the wife had a college degree or more.

Easily measurable factors like income and job opportunities are only part of the explanation for why college graduates have stronger marriages. Attitudes and outlook toward the future matter, too: Families that raise their children with an eye toward the future -- a college degree -- are also families that tend to place values on other long-term commitments like marriage. Raising children to devote time and energy to education means asking them to be future-oriented, to have greater self-control and hope for an upwardly mobile future. These ideas are on shaky ground during tough economic times, but they are building blocks that lead not just to marriage and relationship longevity, but prosperity and happiness.

Let's put aside the outdated conventional wisdom -- young, educated women are doing just fine in their careers and in love -- and turn our attention to providing those same advantages for more members of future generations.

Christine B. Whelan is a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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