By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 1:54 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 sought out higher education.
A new report shows that the marriage gap, though once large, turned around for white women starting with those born in the early 1970s. Now ages 35 to 39, these women have been as likely to marry as those who did not graduate from college, according to the report done by the Pew Research Center.
For both groups, 84 percent had married at some point before they were 40, according to the analysis of 2008 data.
"It's a historic reversal," said senior researcher Richard Fry, author of the Pew study. "There was a time in the early 20th century when there was a huge marriage gap."
The finding, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, comes as part of a broader analysis of the reversal of the college marriage gap.
Once, the popular notion was that going to college delayed the age of marriage. Now, across the population, the typical age for marriage is 28, both for those who complete higher education and those who don't take that path or in some cases don't finish.
Probing 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," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies marriage at Johns Hopkins University. "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."
Cherlin said such couples are "increasingly cohabiting and won't marry until they feel economically secure, which may take many years in today's labor market."
Recent changes are also driven by the marriage patterns of white women in particular, said Fry, the Pew researcher.
In 1950, 66 percent of white female college graduates married by age 40, compared with 93 percent of their less-educated counterparts. That gap has been steadily shrinking for decades. "Now it's at zero," Fry said.
Since 1990, college-educated African American women have been more likely to marry than their counterparts with less education, according to the report. The study did not include marriage patterns of Hispanics because historic census data was not available.
The college marriage gap among African American women is sharpening, said Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at the 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."