October 7, 2010

The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap

I. Overview

In a reversal of long-standing marital patterns, college-educated young adults are more likely than young adults lacking a bachelor’s degree to have married by the age of 30.

In 2008, 62% of college-educated 30-year-olds were married or had been married, compared with 60% of 30-year-olds who did not have a college degree.1

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated adults in the United States had been less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by age 30. In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-year-olds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.

As those numbers attest, marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree. But the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education.

Young adults who do not have a college degree are delaying marriage to such an extent that the median age at first marriage in 2008 was, for the first time ever, the same for the college-educated and those who were not college-educated: 28. As recently as 2000, there had been a two-year gap, with the typical college-educated adult marrying for the first time at 28 and the typical adult lacking a college degree marrying for the first time at 26.

Among the possible explanations for this shift are the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry. From 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5% (to $55,000 in 2008 from $52,300 in 1990), while the median annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12% (to $32,000 in 2008 from $36,300 in 1990).2 During this same time period, the number of cohabitating households (that is, partners of the opposite sex living together without being married) more than doubled. About half of all cohabiters are under age 35, and more than 80% do not have a college degree (Census Bureau, 2004).

There are gender differences associated with the reversal in the college marriage gap. Young women with college degrees are now just as likely as less-educated women to marry, and the timing of their marriages are increasingly similar. This was not the case in 1990. Back then, less-educated women were more likely to marry than were better-educated women, and they tended to do so at a younger age.

Men, like women, are increasingly delaying their first marriages, but the probability of marriage by educational attainment levels has remained unchanged among men. Indeed, it has been the case for many decades that college-educated men are at least as likely to marry at a relatively young age as are men without bachelor’s degrees. In 1960, for example, a college-educated man in his mid-30s was just as likely to have married as a less-educated counterpart.

There have also been shifts since 1990 in later-in-life marriage rates among adults with differing levels of educational attainment. In 2008, 91% of both college-educated adults and adults without a college degree had ever married by ages 55 to 59. In 1990, more adults lacking a bachelor’s degree (96%) than college-educated adults (94%) had ever married by this stage of life. Farther back in time, the marital gap was much bigger. In 1950, 92% of 55- to 59-year-olds without a college education had ever married, compared with just 80% of their counterparts with a college degree.


Married adults tend to be better off, economically, than unmarried adults, and the declining marriage propensities of young adults who are not college-educated have exacerbated their economic challenges. The adjusted annual median household income was about $77,000 for married adults in 2008, compared with $54,000 for unmarried adults. Some of this difference reflects the fact that married adults typically reside in households with more earners. However, even when one compares married and unmarried adults in households with the same number of earners, married adults remain better off. The median adjusted household income of married adults in one-earner households in 2008 was about $63,000, compared with $53,000 for unmarried adults in one-earner households.3

The economic well-being associated with marriage is not confined to the college-educated. In 2008, married adults without a college education had a median household income that was 34% higher than the median income of unmarried adults lacking a college degree. This differential has been relatively stable for the past half century.


There is also a correlation between educational attainment and the likelihood of divorce. Newly available Census Bureau data show, for example, that in 2008, 2.9% of all married adults ages 35-39 who lacked a college diploma saw their first marriage end in divorce in the prior year, compared with just 1.6% of a comparably aged group that had a college education. There were similar gaps in divorce rates in 2008 among adults in other age groups. Unlike with marriage data, however, divorce data have not been collected by the Census Bureau in a way that permits comparisons over time in the divorce rates of those with and without a college degree.

About this Report

This report examines changes in the likelihood, timing and stability of marriage among adults ages 25 to 59. The analysis utilizes the public use micro samples of the 1950 to 2000 Decennial Censuses and the companion 2008 American Community Survey (ACS). The 2008 ACS was the first Census Bureau enumeration to inquire if the respondent had divorced within the past year, facilitating detailed tallies of the likelihood of divorce among adults in first marriages. The 2008 ACS was also the first survey since the 1980 Census to inquire as to the number of times the respondent had married. The charts for this report were prepared by research assistant Daniel Dockterman. Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project, provided editorial guidance. D’Vera Cohn and Rakesh Kochhar provided valuable comments. Gabriel Velasco did the number checking, and Marcia Kramer copy-edited the report.

A Note on Terminology

“College-educated” refers to persons whose highest educational degree or level completed is at least a bachelor’s degree and includes persons who have completed a master’s degree, professional degree (for example, MD, JD, DDS, and DVM) or doctorate degree. Individuals who have completed some years of college credit or an associate’s degree, but not a bachelor’s degree, are not included with the “college-educated” in this analysis. Due to the historical sweep of the analysis presented, adults of Hispanic origin cannot be separately identified in this report because full data on Hispanic identity were not collected until 1980. Adults of “white” and “black” racial origin therefore include the Hispanic and the non-Hispanic components of these populations.

  1. Comparable marriage data for 2009 are available, but the U.S. Census Bureau is not scheduled to release 2009 marriage data that can be tallied by education until November 2010.
  2. These figures refer only to 25- to 34-year-old men with full-time, full-year jobs—and thus slightly understate the growing economic disparities among young men with different educational attainment levels. From 1990 to 2008, the labor force participation rates of young men without a college diploma fell by three percentage points (to 87.2% from 90.2%), while the rate among college graduates fell by less than one percentage point (to 94.8% from 95.2%).
  3. The median individual income of married adults was about $30,000 in 2008, compared with less than $15,000 for unmarried adults.

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