A study of graduates from elite schools, including Yale University, looked at earning and marriage trends. (Stan Godlewski/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

I don’t believe any journalist has ever exploited a single academic paper as fervently as I have. The document in question is the seemingly dull 1999 National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 7322, “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables.”

That dense but brilliant study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger exploded the widespread myth that going to a selective college meant a better-paying career. I have done articles and speeches on it. It was the subject of my 2003 book, “Harvard Schmarvard,” not a bestseller but I did just get a royalty check for $14.73.

So, I was momentarily troubled when my colleague Andrew Van Dam, who covers data and economics for The Washington Post, told me that a team of scholars had taken another look at the same material and reached a different conclusion. What?!

Then, I read Van Dam’s intriguing piece on Wonkblog and stopped worrying. Economists Suqin Ge of Virginia Tech, Elliott Isaac of Tulane University and Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia have not disproved the Dale-Krueger study. They have enriched it with a female-oriented twist.

It is still true, they said, that men didn’t gain any pay advantage from attending selective colleges whose students had higher SAT averages. But women who went to those colleges made more money on average than similar women who attended less selective schools.

Why? Because, by a small but significant margin, they were less likely to marry and to put their careers on hold for child rearing. “Attending a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score increases women’s probability of advanced degree attainment by 5 percentage points and earnings by 14 percent, while reducing their likelihood of marriage by 4 percentage points,” the authors said.

“The declining marriage rate for those women is more likely due to them setting a higher bar for potential spouses,” Ge, Isaac and Miller said.

The survey that produced the data on thousands of graduates asked about being “married/living in a marriage-like relationship” and used the term “spouse/partner,” not wife or husband. “So our ‘married group’ includes opposite-sex and same-sex unmarried people who self-identified as living in a marriage-like relationship,” Miller told me.

Several accomplished American women attended selective colleges and never married. They include television producer Shonda Rhimes (Dartmouth) and Nobel laureate scientist Barbara McClintock (Cornell).

I can understand why talented women might not want to marry me. In college, I dreamed of being a newspaper reporter, not a path to riches. Van Dam found research by economists Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan showing that couples were less likely to match and marry if the woman’s income exceeded the man’s, and such couples were more prone to break up.

So, I’m a lucky man. Until she retired, my wife of 51 years (who was managing editor of our selective college newspaper) always made more money than I did, mostly because she was a better journalist.

Dale and Krueger looked at 30 schools, the most selective being Yale University and Swarthmore College. They compared students who arrived in 1976 at selective schools with those who were admitted to selective schools but went elsewhere to college. The average incomes of those two groups, both presumed to have key character traits like persistence and warmth, were not significantly different.

Low-income students were the exception. Those who attended more selective schools earned more. People not in full-time jobs were excluded from the study. When Ge, Isaac and Miller added them to their study, the female income difference became clear.

Personal traits, not what they learned in college, seemed to have created the pay gap, authors of the recent study conclude. The study found that women who attended selective colleges appeared to have higher average salaries because more of them at some point preferred career to family responsibilities.

The research does not address factors besides money that measure a life and a career. Marriage decision-making may have changed over time. In 1967, intelligence and education placed 10th in men’s priorities for a spouse. By 2008, those qualities had jumped to fourth place, after mutual attraction, dependable character and emotional security, said author Stephanie Coontz in a 2012 opinion piece in the New York Times.

According to the authors of the recent study, what happens to you apparently stems from your character and desires, not whether the college you attended was one your grandmother heard of. How marriage affects that remains complicated, which I think it always will be.