Bryan Caplan  

The Marital Return to Education: An Epiphany

Pikkety and Inequality: My Rep... Reminder: My Debate at Oberlin...
Suppose college graduates out-earn high school grads by $30,000 a year.  Naive analysts will tell you, "Finish college and you'll get a $30,000 raise."  The clever, however, will warn you about ability bias.  The kind of people who become college grads usually have pre-existing advantages - intelligence, work ethic, conformity, and more.  Some of the $30,000 earnings gap reflects the pre-existing advantages college grads bring to the table, rather than their education.  In The Case Against Education, my best guess is that only 55% of the earnings gap is causal.  Given an apparent college premium of $30,000 a year, your true college premium is 55%*$30,000=$16,500.

Now suppose that as a result of going to college, you end up marrying a fellow college graduate.  How much does this raise your expected family income?  Assuming your spouse works, the tempting answer is, "$16,500 - the same as it does for me."

On reflection, however, this is a serious mistake.  When you marry a college grad, you wed the whole college package - extra education PLUS the pre-existing ability that typically accompanies that extra education.  So your family income doesn't rise by 55% of $30,000; it rises by 100% of $30,000!  Key insight: College graduation helps you marry into the high-education, high-ability pool, changing the identity of your spouse.

The precise mechanism is immaterial.  Maybe you directly meet your spouse in college.  Maybe your college degree gets you a job where you meet fellow college grads.  Maybe college grads only date their own kind.  As long as your education somehow causes you to marry a college grad, you're in the money.

Notice: This argument for ignoring spousal ability bias does not apply if you are already married.  When you tie the knot, your partner's pre-existing ability changes from a variable to a constant.  So if your current spouse decides to pursue a college degree, you should only expect your family income to rise by $16,500 after graduation.

In the real world, of course, there's a large (but shrinking) gender gap in the marital return.  The average male gets a bigger absolute payoff in the labor market, and therefore gets a smaller absolute payoff in the marriage market.  The average female gets a smaller absolute payoff in the labor market, and therefore gets a larger absolute payoff in the marriage market.  As I've previously explained, though, switching from two one-person households to one two-person household saves so much money that even the higher-earning spouse normally profits from marriage.

In any case, most people plan to marry someone.  Given this preference, the marginal payoff of your education in the marriage market would be large even if marrying per se didn't save you a dime.  If you're going to split your income with another person, you want that person to be rich.  And in our society, extra schooling is one of the most effective ways to make that happen.

Lest I be misunderstood: I'm not claiming that gold-digging is a common motive for education, and I'm certainly not advocating gold-digging.  My claim, rather, is that regardless of their conscious intentions, the well-educated strike even more gold than you'd think.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
blink writes:

"Now suppose that as a result of going to college, you end up marrying a fellow college graduate." Hold on, here... Your assumption gives away the game! For your conclusion, you rule out *all* other sources of assortive mating. Sure, being surrounded by college educated increases the probability of high types matching, but you overstate your case.

It's well known many women go to college for the MRS degree.

Enial Cattesi writes:

I think there were some studies which indicated that the disposable income of a man increased after divorce. Any opinions on that?

Thomas Boyle writes:


If the man earns more than the woman, when they marry her disposable income rises and his falls. If, subsequently, they divorce, then absent transfer payments her disposable income falls and his rises. That's to be expected: the problem is that both "gender feminists" and "cultural conservatives" painted this as a bad thing, and insisted on post-marriage entitlements that, today, can only be described as obscene.

The economic reality is that when a man marries, he begins to accumulate a debt to his wife. The more he out-earns her (often because she de-emphasizes income both before and, especially, after marriage), the bigger the debt. She can collect on this debt by divorcing him, or allow it to grow (up to a limit) by staying with him. Once the marriage is "long term" (depends on the state), by midlife a man who is the breadwinner and has a good income generally owes his wife substantially more than the couple's net worth: she is entitled to 50% of that net worth plus a lifetime annuity likely to be worth a multiple of that, in exchange for which she is obligated to... nothing.

Of course, as long as she stays with him, the debt remains "unpaid" (in practice, he is supporting her in the meantime). This threat, hanging over his head, shifts the power balance in the marriage decisively to her over time, allowing her to "have her cake and eat it too", capturing an excess share of value (high standard of living, most of the decision-making power, limited obligations) even while staying in the marriage.

As a young man I used to be surprised to meet otherwise-powerful, accomplished, hard-working, wealthy men, who lived in terror of their wives. I should not have been.

I recognize that, in theory, the law would apply equally if the breadwinner were the woman. I understand that, in such cases, it is rare for family law to be enforced with the same ferocity.

Kitty_T writes:

"I'm not claiming that gold-digging is a common motive for education, and I'm certainly not advocating gold-digging."

Of course not. You've just rediscovered the logic behind the old advice that one shouldn't marry for money, but go where the rich people are and marry for love.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top