US/World

Lower Class: College Attendance Decreases Chances for Marriage

A man puts an engagement ring on a woman's finger during a photo opportunity at a jewellery store in Tokyo June 2, 2009.
A man puts an engagement ring on a woman's finger during a photo opportunity at a jewellery store in Tokyo June 2, 2009. Yuriko Nakao/ Reuters

College attendance decreases the likelihood of marriage for people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, according to a new study.

Researchers found that college attendance for the lowest social stratum individuals decreased the probability of marriage by 38 percent for men and 22 percent for women.

In contrast, college attendance increased the probability for marriage among those in the upper class, with men increasing their marriage chances by 31 percent and women by 8 percent.

Experts noted that previous studies have shown that “college is the great equalizer” in the labor market, reducing social class differences, but this positive trend cannot be applied to the marriage market.

Study author Kelly Musick, a Cornell University sociologist, said that these findings suggest that social and cultural factors, not just income, are significant to marriage decisions, and that men and women from lower class backgrounds who attend college appear to be caught between social worlds. 

Researchers explained that these individuals are probably reluctant to “marry down” to partners with less education, and are unable to “marry up” to those from more privileged upbringings. 

"College students are becoming more diverse in their social backgrounds, but they nonetheless remain a socio-economically select group," said Musick. "It may be difficult for students from less privileged backgrounds to navigate social relationships on campus, and these difficulties may affect what students ultimately gain from the college experience."

Musick and sociologists at the University of California-Los Angeles based their data on a sample of about 3,200 Americans from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that followed participants from adolescence into adulthood.

Researchers estimated the probability of participants’ college attendance based on family income, parental education and other indicators of social background and early academic achievement, and split participants into groups depending on class, and compared marriage chances of college and non-college-goers within each group.

"This research demonstrates the importance of differentiating between social background and educational achievement," Musick said. "Educational achievement may go far in reducing income differences between men and women from different social backgrounds, but social and cultural distinctions may persist in social and family relationships."

In light on the findings, researchers hoped that the results could raise awareness of potential social or academic barriers faced by first-generation college students.

The study will appear in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

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