Marriage 'gap' narrows among white women regardless of education, report finds

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:47 PM

White women with college degrees are now just as likely to get married as their less-educated counterparts, ending what researchers once thought of as a "marriage penalty" for generations of young women who pursued higher education.

A new report shows that the once-large marriage gap for white women turned around starting with a cohort of women who were born in the early 1970s. Those women, now ages 35 to 39, have been as likely to marry as those who did not graduate from college, according to the report by the Pew Research Center.

For both groups, an analysis of 2008 figures shows 84 percent had married at some point before age 40.

"It's a historic reversal," said Richard Fry, author of the study. "There was a time in the early 20th century when there was a huge marriage gap."

The finding, based on data from the Census Bureau, comes as part of a larger analysis that shows a closing of the college marriage gap overall. Now, across the population, the typical age of marriage is 28 for both those who complete higher education and those who don't take that path or in some cases don't finish.

But looking deeper at the trend, researchers found that much of this shift has been driven by a declining likelihood of marriage among men and women without college degrees.

"Young adults today believe you shouldn't get married until you're economically secure," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who studies marriage. "Until at least the young man has a steady job, the young adults won't marry. Marriage becomes something you do after you get a decent job, not before."

It also is driven by the marriage patterns of white women in particular, said Fry, the Pew researcher. Since 1990, college-educated African American women have been more likely to marry than their counterparts who do not have as much education, according to the report.

That marriage gap among African American women is sharpening, said Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at University of Pennsylvania.

One of many reasons for this, Stevenson said, is that college-educated women are more likely to think that marriage will make them happy.

"College-educated women of all races are basically in the heyday of marriage today," she said. "They are marrying at rates similar to what the college-educated women of their mothers' generation did, but doing so later in life, and they are marrying at rates much higher than the college-educated women of their grandmothers' generation. And they have become less likely to divorce compared to their mothers' generation."

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