Can college hurt your marriage prospects?

Men who go to college are more likely to get married. Women who go to college are more likely to get married. It seemed like a small leap to assume that people from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to college are more likely to get married.

But a recent study suggests that assumption would be wrong. When sociologists at Cornell University and the University of California at Los Angeles examined data provided by 3,200 Americans in a long-term government study, they found, to their surprise, that college lowered the odds that those from a very socially and economically disadvantaged background would ever get married.

"We thought that disadvantaged students who went to college would be all the more likely to marry," said Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "We found the opposite."

Among those study participants in the lowest 20 percent economically and socially, Musick and her colleagues found that about 79 percent of those who did not go to college got married, compared with 63 percent of those who did go to college.

Study participants in the most advantaged 20 percent, in turn, were more likely to get married if they attended college.

Musick, whose study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, said there are several possible explanations for the findings, but the one that best matches the data is "marriage market mismatch:" basically, the idea that college kids from poor neighborhoods are caught between two social worlds.

Musick cites a study by researchers including sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, now an associate professor at the University of Michigan.

"They basically occupied a room in a dorm and did a lot of close observation and in-depth interviews," Musick says. "They documented this awkward place that these (disadvantaged) women were left in by wanting to succeed and make a different kind of life by going to college, not really wanting to go back to their home communities and partner with or marry the men they left behind, but also not being fully integrated into the social scene on campus."

Musick said there are other possible explanations for her findings, among them the possibility that first-generation college students are more driven than their classmates and more likely to forgo family for the sake of their careers.

"That's a plausible story" when it comes to women, said Musick. But in her study, disadvantaged men also saw their odds of marriage decrease when they attended college. Since men generally aren't thought to face the same pressures to choose between marriage and career, the career-over-family explanation doesn't fit the data.

Disadvantaged kids still benefit profoundly from college. Studies have shown that disadvantaged students get the biggest boost from college in the job market, Musick says. What her study does indicate is an opportunity for colleges to better help disadvantaged students to socially assimilate. The study also highlights broader issues, Musick says.

"It's a real window into cleavages in society. What could be more intimate than your marriage partner? What could speak more to the distinctions that people make, whether social class, race, or whatever differences that you might look at?"

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