Could graduate weddings widen the inequality gap?

Getting married in New York, March 2014

It's not often that books about university get people so irritated.

But a book published in the US, Marry Smart, has stirred up controversy with the idea that women at university should be hunting for a husband.

It's been attacked and parodied for what its critics say is an outdated, 1950s view of women. And it's been bashed for a snobbish view that non-graduates are not marriage material for a clever woman.

The writer of this provocative advice book, Susan Patton, was labelled by The Times as "probably the most hated author in America right now".

But what if more graduates really are choosing to settle down with other graduates?

An intriguing and rather uncomfortable piece of research published earlier this year suggested that all-graduate couples were a driving factor in widening social inequality in the US.

We've become so used to thinking of education as an engine of social mobility that it's hard to envisage the idea of widening university access as being a mechanism for social division.

The study, produced by academics in the US, Germany and Spain for the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows evidence of how graduate wedding bells are linked to a widening income gap.

Looking between 1960 and 2005, it found an increase in so-called "assortative mating" - where people seek out a particular trait in potential partners.


And the "assortative mating" taking place was social selection according to levels of education.

In 1960, it was much more usual for couples to cross educational divides - a graduate might have settled down with an early school leaver.

In 2005, graduates were more likely to marry other graduates.

There are many reasons why that might be the case, including an increase in overall graduate numbers and women's wider career horizons.

But whatever the reason, the study found that it is increasing income inequality. It concentrates advantage. It amplifies a social divide, with levels of education strongly connected with a polarising jobs market.

In 1960, a US couple who left education after completing high school could expect to earn around the average household income. And if a high-school drop-out married a graduate, they could still expect to earn above average for a couple.

But by 2005 this had changed. A couple of high school graduates had slipped downwards to below the average household income. And the high school drop-out married to the graduate were also below average earnings.

The real winners have been the graduate couples. The rewards have never been greater for these power couples. And for a couple where both are postgraduates, earnings are more than double the average household income.

The study concludes that if people in 2005 had the same "mating patterns" as in 1960, which means marrying with much less regard to education, there would be a "significant reduction in income inequality".

So fewer graduate couples would mean less inequality? Or the irresistible law of unintended consequences?



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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    stuff equality - excitement wins!
    but...being able to talk is the catalyst.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Reality trumps Political correctness every time,
    "Equality" is an unobtainable myth, never been true,never will be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    15. Steve

    Indeed. Preposterous drivel. People tend to marry people with a similar outlook to themselves so it is quite obvious that one graduate will typically be drawn to another.

    This has been going on for centuries and to call it news is ludicrous.

    I do wonder though whether it might be a part of a general attack on marriage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Most smart women know that behaving stupidly around a man is a smart move. Unless the man is stupid and then it's a stupid move. Behaving smartly around a stupid man is a smart move. Stupid men get very anxious and start becoming agressive. At some point they realise that they are out of their depth and can't fight their way out of this one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The big difference between 1960 and 2005 is that in 1960 most middle class women leaving school didn't go on to university and in 2005 most middle class women leaving school did go on to university.

    That probably accounts for the whole difference between grad plus non grad in 1960 and grad plus grad in 2005. No change in "assertive mating", just in women's education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Is there nothing more important going on in the world to worry about this drivel?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    One of the issues today is that the working classes in Britain have been conned into believing they have university degrees. Tony Blair's push for education drove standards to rock bottom and made lecturers throw in the towel and pass everyone.

    The tragedy is that (for example) nurses are diagnosing, prescribing drugs, being managers. Resulting in the horror of Mid Staffordshire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    There is of course absolute stupidity and relative stupidity. Most of my relatives are absolutely stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm not fussy...

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Research from dating websites shows that women are interested in a man's status and job while men are interested in looks and youth. It stands to reason that an educated woman would wish to partner up with somebody whose status is at least on a par with her own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Inequality is not a bad thing per se, and there seems to be a lot of blurring of the difference between inequality and prejudice or discrimination.

    People by and large always have 'married' within their social groups, ts nothing new. There are exceptions of course but they are just that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Its an old idea but there are more graduates and people just hook up in their social network.

    People don't necessarily always try and select Smart but avoiding the large numbers of dim who walk among us can pay off:)

    Graduates earn more, dual incomes, blah

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    if you spend an impressionable period of your life with a certain group of people, I'm sure you are increasingly likely to marry someone from this group. You will have many shared experiences and values.

    This is a nothing story designed to add fuel to the flames of us against them rich folk. Funny how the BBC are now coining the phrase 'cost of living crisis' on a regular basis in the news

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    If you are smart, how stupid would you have to be to spend time with someone who was stupid. No one who is smart is that stupid. Stupid people aren't smart enough to realise that smart people find them stupid. They need to get smart or find a nice stupid partner. But then to overcome the stigma of stupidity how nice would you have to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Marrying within your social circle is nothing new, the rich have been doing it for centuries. Keeps the lower classes in place don`t ya know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Mark Twain wasn't a graduate, but he knew about lies, damn lies, and statistics.

    In 2005, there were simply a lot more graduates to go round than in 1960. In any western country. Naturally more of them would marry each other, even if choosing at random.

    As for "promoting" income inequality, would shuffling marriage partners without changing jobs reduce it? Of course not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I wonder how people at that age and position in life manage to get a mortgage with potentially £50,000 worth of debt around their necks to begin with? This is before having a child (or children). I've absolutely no idea how they do it, especially since graduates are facing a poor job market currently.

    The only solution is if you are wealthy to start off with, or one of you are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It's not surprising that some people get married at or shortly after university, but I find the idea that you can only 'settle down' with someone because they've been to university a little odd (and snobbish). Certainly there were people at university who seemed dedicated to 'pairing off' when I was there, but most people were just concentrating on getting a good degree.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Inequality is not anything to get worked up about, or certainly try on doing things to alter. R4 reported on latest research that shows mobility over centuries is always at the same rate, more or less, with no change by big brother attempts to rig it.


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