More Education for Women No Longer Means More Divorce

For decades one of the awkward things about education achievement is that, while we all kind of thought education was a good thing, there were unintended consequences.

Some of the outcomes for educated people turned out not be so great for society itself. In particular, women who were better educated than their husband were more likely to get divorced.

It’s not true anymore. According to a study published recently in the American Sociological Review:

The reversal of the gender gap in education has potentially far-reaching consequences for marriage markets, family formation, and relationship outcomes. One possible consequence is the growing number of marriages in which wives have more education than their husbands. Past research shows that this type of union is at higher risk of dissolution. Using data on marriages formed between 1950 and 2004 in the United States, we evaluate whether this association has persisted as the prevalence of this relationship type has increased.

Our results show a large shift in the association between spouses’ relative education and marital dissolution. Specifically, marriages in which wives have the educational advantage were once more likely to dissolve, but this association has disappeared in more recent marriage cohorts. Another key finding is that the relative stability of marriages between educational equals has increased. These results are consistent with a shift away from rigid gender specialization toward more flexible, egalitarian partnerships, and they provide an important counterpoint to claims that progress toward gender equality in heterosexual relationships has stalled.

Earlier studies generally indicated that marriages in which women were more educated than their husbands were 27 to 38 percent more likely to end in divorce.

Well I guess that’s progress.

Marriage

While women still earn less than men, face discrimination both personally and professionally, and can’t have it all, in one way there’s been a lot of progress as far as women and education go.

As lead author Christine R. Schwartz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it:

We also found that couples in which both individuals have equal levels of education are now less likely to divorce than those in which husbands have more education than their wives. These trends are consistent with a shift away from a breadwinner-homemaker model of marriage toward a more egalitarian model of marriage in which women’s status is less threatening to men’s gender identity.

Well that’s one way to see it. Another important point here, however, is that people are also simply less likely to get married at all.

In 2011, just over half of all American adults were married. More than a quarter adults, 28 percent, had never had been married. In 1960 the rates were 72 and 15, respectively. It’s true that unequal marriages don’t lead to divorce the way they used to, but a huge portion of Americans aren’t even trying anymore.

What’s more, even among people who do get married, the unequal education attainment partnership (people with partners with less education) is just not that common.

As Matthew Yglesias put it earlier this year: “The prosperous man of the early 21st century much more likely to be married to a women who also earns a substantial income than was his predecessor of 50 years ago….”

That probably has an awful lot to do with the college attainment of women. It’s nice that the educated woman isn’t necessarily going to get divorced from her less educated husband, but the more important trend is probably just that people of unequal education backgrounds are unlikely to marry each other at all.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer