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Are High-Achieving Women Doomed to Be Single and Childless?

The romantic consequences of women's educational and labor market success

Age-old scare tactics assert that women who are “too” educated or high-earning will have trouble finding a husband—which, the scare mongers assume, is women’s only true source of happiness (for example: Susan Patton 2013). Ignoring for the moment that finding a spouse is at least as important to men (see my July 2014 blog posting) and that single women are not necessarily unhappy, is it even true that highly-educated women face worse marital prospects?

Women are attaining higher education than men—71 percent of women graduating high school in 2012 enrolled in college, compared to only 61 percent of male high school graduates (Pew 2012). This may be attributed in part to a higher incidence of disciplinary problems among young men, but it also reflects a gender reversal in career aspirations—more young women than men state that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is very important in their lives (Pew 2012). If men indeed avoid highly-educated, high-earning wives, women’s successes may depress marriage rates in future generations.

But are highly-educated women romantically-undesirable, doomed to end up single and childless?

Even among baby-boomers, one of the first generations to come of age after women’s mass entry into paid employment, college-educated women and men were about equally likely to marry by age 46 (88 percent of women and 90 percent of men; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013). More to the point, the college-educated were more likely to marry than their less-educated, same-gender counterparts and their marriages were substantially less likely to end in divorce. Clearly, women’s high education per se has never made them romantically undesirable, but what if women have higher education than their (potential) husbands? As women have surpassed men in educational attainment, such marriages must become increasingly common for highly-educated women’s marriage rates to remain stable.

Historically, marriages in which wives were more educated than their husbands faced a higher risk of divorce, compared to couples in which husbands were more highly-educated (Schwartz and Han 2014). However, as it has become increasingly common for wives’ education to exceed their husbands’ education this difference in divorce risk has disappeared (Schwartz and Han 2014). In addition, the relative stability of marriages between equally-educated spouses has increased, compared to marriages in which spouses’ education levels differ (Schwartz and Han 2014). This reflects a broad change in the meaning of marriage as couples shift away from gender-specialization toward equality. Modern couples generally do not expect women to retreat into domesticity after marriage, nor do they expect men to be solely responsible for economic provision. In fact, when adults are asked to rank the importance of nine items often associated with successful marriages, sharing household chores ranks third—ahead of having adequate income, good housing, common interests, shared religious beliefs, and children (Pew Research 2007). Moreover, contrary to the stereotypical image of wives nagging husbands to help around the home, men are slightly more likely than women to rate sharing chores as very important.

Nor are highly-educated women doomed to involuntary childlessness. On average, highly-educated women marry at age 27 and have their first child at age 30—later than their less-educated counterparts, but well before the “biological clock” decimates their chances of conception (Barkhorn 2013). True, childlessness is most common among the most highly-educated women but the fertility gap between more and less-educated women is closing (Pew Research 2010). Since the 1970s, childlessness has risen for all racial and ethnic groups and for women of most education levels, but it has fallen over the past decade for women with advanced degrees (Pew Research 2010). Moreover, it is not clear how many childless college-educated women are involuntarily childlessness—many may have made a choice not to have children.

Marriage has changed since the days of Ozzie and Harriet. In today’s relatively egalitarian unions, women’s career prospects boost their marital prospects (Sweeney and Cancian 2004). Highly-educated women are not excluded from marriage—instead, they enjoy higher marital rates and lower divorce rates than their less-educated counterparts. Attempts to frighten women into early marriage may do substantial harm and little (if any) good. Those who marry young face a higher risk of divorce (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013) and women who marry later enjoy higher earnings (Barkhorn 2013). Similarly, women’s earnings are about 10 percent higher for each year that they delay their first birth (Miller 2011). Advocates of early marriage have yet to explain why they desire a higher divorce rate and a larger gender-wage gap. In the meantime, women (and men) would be well-advised not to jettison their education or career in search of a spouse.


Barkhorn, Eleanor. 2013. “Getting Married Later Is Great for College-Educated Women.”…

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2013. “Marriage and divorce: patterns by gender, race, and educational attainment.”…

Miller, Amalia. 2011. “The Effect of Motherhood Timing on Career Path.” Journal of Population Economics 3:1071.

Patton, Susan. 2013. “Letter to the Editor: Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.”

Pew Research. 2007. “Modern Marriage.”

Pew Research. 2010. “Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees.”…

Pew Research. 2012. “A Gender Reversal on Career Aspirations.”

Pew Research. 2014. “Women’s College Enrollment Gains Leave Men Behind.”…

Schwartz, Christine R., and Hongyun Hang. 2014. “The Reversal of the Gender Gap in Education and Trends in Marital Dissolution.” American Sociological Review 79:605.

Sweeney, Megan M., and Maria Cancian. 2004. “The Changing Importance of White Women's Economic Prospects for Assortative Mating.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66:1015.