Bryan Caplan  

A Neglected Private Benefit of Education

Quotations from Alice Rivlin... PBR, once again...
One neglected lesson of Charles Murray's Coming Apart is that, due to changing family structure, the private return to education has risen even more than it seems.  In the 60s, rates of marriage and divorce barely varied by education level.  Now, however, there is a huge gap.  Since being single is an expensive luxury, the breakdown in the family implies that the true standard of living gap between college grads, high school grads, and high school drop-outs is markedly larger than it seems.

Furthermore, because people tend to marry others with similar education levels, college grads don't just get their historically high return to education.  They can also reasonable expect to capture the historically high return to education of a well-educated spouse.

Has the family-status-adjusted return to education risen more for men or women?  It's tempting to answer, "Men, hands down."  After all, now that college-educated women are (a) far more likely to work and (b) make a lot more money, the spousal income that college-educated men can reasonable expect to capture has grown by leaps and bounds.  On second thought, however, the answer's less clear.  In the 60s, going to college had little effect on a woman's chance of raising kids without their father support.  Now college drastically reduces that risk. 

I freely admit that ability bias overstates the effect of education on family status.  But I'm confident that a big causal effect remains.  After all, when people hang out together, they're a lot more likely to date and marry.  That's the way of the world.  If you want to marry a doctor, hang out near a medical school.  If you want to marry a college grad, go to college.  After graduation, moreover, your education continues to have a big effect on who you work and socialize with.  Selfishly speaking, you should heavily weigh these effects when you make educational plans.

None of this implies, however, that the social return to education is any bigger than it seems.  If you go to college, you drastically improve your chance of a stable, lucrative marriage.  But this is basically rent-seeking.  In all probability you're "stealing" your spouse from the person they would have married if they hadn't met you.  In the limit, if everyone went to college, the men and women in college would cease to be "special" - and going to college would cease to be a good way to find a premium spouse.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Scott Wentland writes:

If marriage-seeking college attendance is like rent-seeking, and rent-seeking creates a deadweight loss, then wouldn't the social value of education rise if everyone went to college (as we eliminate that deadweight loss)?

I think one answer to that question might be that college is "efficient rent-seeking" in the sense that the total rent-seeking costs are relatively lower than other marital rent-seeking alternatives.

Steve Skutnik writes:

This really just seems to come down to the phenomenon of assortative mating, with a strong emphasis upon ability and other associated factors which drive individuals to college. But I think you overstate the sorting effect of college itself. People don't choose a mate on the rough criteria of "they go to college," even if they are seeking to match in terms of ability / other factors. Further cut factors are applied. College's big contribution is in providing a broader geographic pool to draw upon.

To wit, college appears to be part of a larger phenomenon of overall physical mobility which has occurred at the same time college has become more prevalent - an adverse example of this kind of assortative mating might be seen in say, Silicon Valley, where large number of "edge" individuals in terms of ability (who might also be at the margins socially) now congregate. What we see there is an even more radical "sorting" going on, particularly among individuals who may never have otherwise mated (which may also have something to do with the rise of diagnosed autism-spectrum disorders in children).

Sure, signaling might play a role in that college acts as a marker for ability, or more plausibly, ambition. But more importantly, college acts as a geographic "pull" the way technology hubs like Silicon Valley have, concentrating particular people. Even if college becomes more "diffuse," this invariably will still happen, particularly as one moves up the scale of competitive institutions.

ladderff writes:
Has the family-status-adjusted return to education risen more for men or women? It's tempting to answer, "Men, hands down." After all, now that college-educated women are (a) far more likely to work and (b) make a lot more money, the spousal income that college-educated men can reasonable expect to capture has grown by leaps and bounds.

The "income" accruing to men from marriage is sex and legitimate children, not cash. Both your (a) and (b) make marriage less attractive and less satisfying to both prospective partners, at least among heterosexuals. There's been enough said and linked to about this that you should think about accounting for it or at least explaining why you don't.

Yes I know you are going to cite the mystery of the relatively high marriage rate among the educated, but this too has been addressed without any response from the more respectable end of the blogosphere: those marriages are coming much later in life than they used to and with a depressed fertility rate. That's a double-downer for the male's "spousal income." If marriage is the proper context for baby-making, as you seem to agree, then these educated marriages are proving a sham.

Collin writes:

I am not sure what your point is. If everybody went to college, then students would just another way to sort themselves out. In theory that what High School was for in 1950s (to better mix people) and then 1960/70s integration. However in the long run people will still find ways to sort themselves out. Isn't the basic theme of the John Hughes 1980's movie cycle?

Personally I think it is not just the college that does this, but people mature and financially setup at ~25 when they are more ready for marriage. Really the best way to lower the divorce rate, is not allow marriage and have kids unless they are over 25. And I don't think that would be the right policy and the birth rate would crash.

IVV writes:


I'm not so sure that I agree with your view of the "income" to men. Certainly, in a world where men must provide all income and women must provide household development, then yes, that is true.

But are you actually saying that men do not value the increased income of a working spouse? I, for one, do not turn down cash when available, nor do I expect most other men do.

You are correct that IF sex and children are the benefits to the man of marriage, THEN educated marriage is of dubious value to men. But... these men are educated. Would they commit to a path that is worse for them than non-educated men, in droves? That is doubtful.

Therefore, educated men must receive something else from marriage, like better living conditions, more discretionary spending, and a dedicated partner to assist with personal development. I know I do.

Steve Sailer writes:

"However in the long run people will still find ways to sort themselves out."

Right. So, immigration policy is the main lever for actually accomplishing anything positive: bring in smart people, keep out dumb people. That policy would give our children and grandchildren a higher quality pool of potential spouses.

Lori writes:

"Now college drastically reduces that risk."

Drastically reduces risk? I guess everything is a question of whose ox gets gored.

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