Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap

II. The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap

In a reversal of long-standing marital patterns, in 2008 college-educated young adults were more likely than young adults lacking bachelor’s degrees to have ever married (Figure 1). In their early and mid-20s, the college-educated remain less likely to have married than those with less education. Among 30-year-olds in 2008, however, the college-educated were more likely to have ever married.

Throughout the last century, the college-educated not only married later in adulthood but were also less likely to have ever married or there was a “marital gap” between adults who were college-educated and those without a college diploma. As recently as 1990, 90% of 40-year-olds who did not have a college education had married, compared with 88% of college-educated 40-year-olds.

Figure 2 reports ever-married rates for 55- to 59-year-olds. Until recently, those lacking a college education were more likely to have married, and at mid-20th century (1950), the marital gap was quite large. In 1950, 92% of 55-to-59 year-olds who had not completed a college degree had married, but only 80% of college-educated 55- to 59-year-olds had married.

Gender and Race

There are differences in marital trends by gender and race. The recent reversal in the college marriage gap largely reflects recent changes in the behavior of white women. There has been much less change in marital patterns by education among men and black women.


For decades, college-educated men have been at least as likely to enter into marriage as their less-educated counterparts (Figure 3). In 1950, there was a small gap in the likelihood of ever marrying in favor of men without a college diploma, but since 1960 college-educated men have been just as likely to get married as men lacking college credentials.


White Women: The recent marital reversal is being driven by changes in the marriage behavior of white women. Throughout the 20th century, college-educated white women were less likely than those lacking a college education to marry (Figure 4).

Earlier in the last century, the marital success gap was quite large. In 1950, only 67% of college-educated white women had married by ages 55 to 59.

Among their lesser educated peers, more than 93% had married. Marriage rates among college-educated white women steadily increased among recent birth cohorts, but even among white women ages 55 to 59, as of 2008, the college-educated were less likely to have married (91%) than those with less education (94%). The marital gap persists among older white women.

Among white women under the age of 40, the marital gap has now vanished (Figure 5). In 2008, young college-educated white women were as likely as less-educated white women to marry. Specifically, in 2008, 84% of college-educated white 35- to 39-year-old women had married, matching the ever-married rate of white women of the same age lacking a college degree. White women born in the early 1970s are the first cohort on record in which the more educated are as likely to marry as the lesser-educated.4 Some demographers had forecast that an “educational crossover” would occur in which college-educated white women would be more likely to marry than their less-educated counterparts. Forecasts by Goldstein and Kenney (2001) indicated that among white women born in the late 1950s, the college-educated would be more likely to ever marry than those lacking a college education. The forecasted “crossover” has not occurred5, but among white women born in the early 1970s there is now parity between the more and less educated in the likelihood of marriage. We may be on the cusp of the crossover.

Black Women: Similar to men, better educated black females have been more likely to marry than less-educated black females for quite some time (Figure 6). In 1970, black women without a college diploma were slightly more likely than black college-educated women to have ever married, but by 1990 the marriage gap among black women favored those with a college diploma. The marital reversal among black women occurred decades ago.

  1. The 1940 Census was the first to ask about educational attainment. So, on the basis of Census Bureau data, one cannot estimate the marriage gap for cohorts born before the 1880s. The early 1970s birth cohort is the first in nearly 100 years in which college-educated white women have married at the sane rate as their less-educated peers.
  2. For example, in 2008, 90% of white females lacking a college degree and born in the early 1960s had married, while only 88% of their Age college-educated counterparts had married.
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