"Marriage Markets" and the Value Of a College Degree

A terrific book to help us understand the interplay between education, family formation, and economic well-being.

November 9, 2014

Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family
by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn
Published in May of 2014.

This is the sort of book that reminds me why I became a sociologist (now lapsed). Carbone and Cahn, a couple of law professors, draw on a wide body of sociological literature to explain how trends in economic inequality and changing family formation patterns reinforce each other.  

Marital childbearing and child rearing is increasingly reserved for the upper college-educated third of American families.  The family formation script for dual-college educated couples is later marriage, pregnancy after-marriage, and comparatively low divorce rates.  This pattern contrasts with the less-educated, as poor and working class women’s childbearing and marital choices are increasingly disconnected.  For the poorest families marriage is increasingly rare, with non-martial childbearing the new normal.  For those with some postsecondary education but who did not complete their degrees, family patterns are likely to include early marriage, an elevated risks of divorce, and single parenthood.

In Marriage Markets we see the interplay between education (particularly college completion), family formation and dissolution patterns, and economic well-being.  The economist Greg Mankiw once observed that “Harvard is probably the world’s most elite dating agency.”   The point is not that students go to college to find a spouse, but that they tend to marry people with similar levels of education.  This type of assortative mating tends to concentrate privilege within the dual-professional households.  These families can afford private pre-schools and houses in good school districts, benefits that are unobtainable for households that do not enjoy two professional incomes.   Class privilege tends to be replicated, as the children from more stable two-parent households are enriched by good schools, expensive extracurriculars, and tutors.  These children of the lucky top-third of households are much more likely to start and finish college, giving these kids a leg-up in a brutally competitive labor market.

Providing better pathways to enrolling in and finishing college are part of the solutions suggested by Carbone and Cahn to address growing levels of inequality in family structure and income.  Discussions of the value of a college degree must include an appreciation of differential rates of marriage, single-parenthood, and divorce alongside conversations about lifetime earnings.  A college education may be an even better value than is commonly recognized.

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