College makes you believe in marriage!

By Razib Khan | July 29, 2012 11:05 pm

There’s a cliche, which isn’t totally false, that more education tends to lead one toward heterodox viewpoints which challenge conventional norms. But one issue that has been coming to the fore over the last 10 years or so is that college educated Americans tend toward social liberalism, and yet often continue to live very bourgeois lives. In other words, the freedoms which they favor are those freedoms which are ever operative in their own lives. In contrast those Americans without college educations tend to have a less libertarian attitude toward personal mores, but have lives characterized by greater disturbance and disastrous choices.

And yet this does not hold in the case of what articles such as this report, How Divorce Lost Its Groove:

Though she wasn’t entirely surprised. Ever since her divorce three years ago, Ms. Thomas said, she has been antisocial, “nervous about what people would say.”

After all, she had gone from Park Slope matron, complete with involved husband (“We had cracked the code of Gen X peer parenthood”) and gut-renovated brownstone, to “a Red Hook divorcée,” she said, remarried with a new baby and two children-of-divorce barely out of preschool. “All of a sudden, this community I’d lived in for 13 years became this spare and mean savannah,” she said.

It was as if, she said, everyone she knew felt bad for her but no one wanted to be near her, either. Even though adultery was not part of the equation, Ms. Thomas said, “I feel like I have a giant letter A on my front and back.

The article goes on to detail how exactly marriage is working for the upper middle class, and it is not working for the lower and lower middle class. But there isn’t much more than anecdote for social attitudes, as opposed to actions (which may have material bases). So I decided to look at the General Social Survey. I looked at the variable DIVLAW over the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. Then I limited the sample to whites, and divided them between those with college degrees, and those without. To my surprise the “trend story” seems about right in broad strokes:

1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Non-college educated Make divorce easier 25 23 24 24
Keep the law the same 22 19 19 22
Make divorce more difficult 53 59 57 54

College educated Make divorce easier 38 21 19 17
Keep the law the same 25 30 29 34
Make divorce more difficult 37 50 51 49

Mind you, this does not lend itself to an interpretation that college educated want to take divorce laws and norms back to the 1950s. Rather, there seems a genuine strand of sentiment that the liberties of the 1970s went too far. This is an important finding because in general the more well educated are more socially liberal in attitudes on a given issue. And, quite often that liberalism waxes over time. Here you have a case where that is not so. Why? I have to offer that perhaps that is because divorce is not simply a matter of the individual. It effects the social fabric, and in particular children.

MORE ABOUT: Divorce, marriage
  • Michael Johnson

    This is just a question, I could be way off– does it make sense to compare these attitudes over time? If “Make divorce easier” asked in 1970 means “Make divorce easier than it is in 1970” and “Make divorce harder” asked in 1990 means “Make divorce harder than it is in 1990” etc., then theoretically the response numbers could be just as you have them, but people could be getting more liberal about the issue over time. I mean, nothing here is inconsistent with 100% of the respondents in 1990 thinking that divorce should be easier than it was in 1970.

  • Miguel Madeira

    Weell, apparently there are less college educated people than non-colleged educated saying “Make divorce easier”; but there are also less college educated people than non-colleged educated saying “Make divorce more difficult”.

  • Razib Khan

    #1 i kind of alluded to that in the first part of the last paragraph. the point is not to compare over time, but compare across educational groups. the CW that marriage is now an ‘upper middle class’ thing does seem reflected in these results too.

  • Dm

    It effects the social fabric, and in particular children

    What effects the social fabric the most are the causes of divorces (emotional, psychological, economic…), rather than divorces themselves. A grossly dysfunctional family stuck in marriage is at least as detrimental for the children and for its wider societal niche as a family separated. And it comes as no surprise that the professional “family-healers” (marriage counselors) have a distinction of enjoying the worst customer satisfaction rate in the broader counseling occupation … about the only thing the marriage counselors successfully achieve is channeling the couples to their “preferred lists” of divorce attorneys.

  • Razib Khan

    What effects the social fabric the most are the causes of divorces (emotional, psychological, economic…), rather than divorces themselves.

    what’s the literature on this? (warning: do not repeat yourself, send me pointers to the papers you are talking about)

  • John


    Here’s a lit review that gives a brief mention of the studies commenter 4 may be talking about. From page 6 of the review:
    Without a significant change in the earnings capacities of low-income men,
    opponents of marriage initiatives argue that families who are at a high risk of poverty will
    gain few economic benefits from marriage. Indeed, marriage may actually worsen rather
    than ease economic hardship (Lichter, Graefe, and Brown 2001; Edin 2000).

  • Chad

    #6 That is not an argument for divorce, but rather an argument against getting married in the first place. Divorce could make the financial situation even worse due to alimony and so on.

    Furthermore, while I have not read the reviews (which seem a bit dated) I bet they are premised on Government benefits. Charles Murray points this out in Loosing Ground, that due to the changes to Welfare and other programs in the 70s, it became economically more beneficial for couples to never marry in the first place, even if they live together.

    Such benefits would not exist for the upper middle class and not explain the trends observed by Razib.

  • Dm

    I studied the subject of the councilors but all I can cite, off the top of my head, about the ill effects of “broken-but-duct-taped-together” families are numerous personal communications (including from the children who grew up in divorced families as well as in the families where parents couldn’t stand one another and couldn’t stop hurting one another but stayed together “for the good of the children” (sheesh) ) . I’m convinced that the lack of love, solidarity, and sincerity between parents makes them very poor role models for the children, and is fraught with negative consequences for the well-being of the children. Mind you, love and cohesiveness may be difficult to quantify (unlike the divorces caused by their shortage), so I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is little statistics on the matter. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you ban me for this post. But I hope that, as a young parent, you give it some thought.

    BTW I think that the economic causes of divorce also transcend the easy-to-measure factors such as income, employment, or wealth. The difference is in the inability of a couple to cope with the financial stress / to adjust their ways in accordance with their objective problems. Typically it is manifested by a tussle over each other’s spending and earning. It’s not like there’s too little money for the couple to survive, it’s too much disagreement over using what they have. A steady improvement of a family economic condition would have made them happier, of course. But typically, anything short of a fast economic improvement has a potential to invite trouble.

  • John

    Dammit. I forgot to post an actual link to the review I mentioned, that will teach me to make posts in a rush.

  • John

    My whole comment in 6 got butchered, feel free to delete that – here’s the review I was referring to.

  • Razib Khan

    #8, there is a very sharp difference between your comments on science vs. non-science posts. if you clarify your comment as you did in #8, that is sufficient i suppose. the problem with this sort of ‘personal communication’ is that it lacks distinctive authority. i too do know plenty of people who are in such situations, or have been. aside from the antisocial readers with autism/asperger’s syndrome i suspect this is true for most. your argument makes plausible and intuitive sense. that is the problem, as these sorts of comments are often strongly filtered by our normative frames. i was already aware of the general outline of your normative frame, which does not seem to be exceptionally rare, so the comment was just an instantiation of that. you’ll get nods from those convinced, and skepticism from those skeptical.

    # 9 & #10. thanks.

  • Chad

    Something else that should be considered, the population structure of college-educated versus non-college educated individuals.

    For example, (this is speculation on my part) if you look at the non-college educated, I suspect that there would be at least two distinct and prominent subsets. One would be younger and middle aged individuals from the lower classes and poor. The other would include older individuals (late 50s, 60s, plus) who would span multiple economic classes. For example, my parents and grandparents would fall within the upper middle class in income, but are not college educated. It simply was not necessary in their times or occupations.

    This second subset of individuals would represent a significant socially conservative element of the non-college educated, but would not possess the same cultural trends of lower classes such as high divorce. Contrasted to the college educated, whose population structure has probably changed quite a bit in the decades since the 70s and has incorporated a wider range and more conservative element of the population.

    Again, this is all speculation on my part.

  • Razib Khan

    #12, i’ll check when i get home from work.

  • Riordan

    Do we happen to have the divorce statistics of not only college educated couples in the aughts (aka mid to late X’ers) but also have those during 90’s (late boomers, early Xers), 80’s(mid boomers), 70’s(“silent” generation), if not before ? It seems to me that the meatiest trend can derived from such a comparison. There must be quite a few studies done on such data, but I can never manage to find one.

  • Education Realist

    More for the readers than Razib:

    The overall “story” on divorce: with the exception of highly dysfunctional families (domestic violence or very high verbal conflict), kids do better in intact marriages than divorce, after controlling for every factor you can think of. Domestic violence or high verbal conflict, the kids are better off if the parents divorce. The impact of divorce is mitigated by well-managed divorces–that is, much of the damage is caused by the disappearance of the father, the mother returning to the workforce, and so on. Kids of divorce whose parents actively co-parent and where the mother was already working do much better, and the differences between these kids and kids in intact marriages are pretty small.

    I know you’ll ask for cites, but this is old stuff and been well-established for 15 years or more, and I can’t remember the major papers anymore. The Amato research was the big story.

    As for the changes in the perception, as someone who lived through the time, I remember very well when divorce went from being “no big deal” to “a big deal” and it was during the mid-90s. With no evidence at all, I’d propose the change in perception was due to a two major factors. First, and most importantly, it was clear by then, in part due to the Amato research and in part due to the first generation of divorce entering their 20s, that divorce *was* a big deal and did a lot of damage.

    Second, the 90s saw a huge uptick in working hours and competitiveness of the workplace. The second generation feminists were starting to realize they couldn’t have it all. While they didn’t necessarily “opt out” (that started more in the oughts), they did start cutting back on work, taking “second jobs” and in general took a big step back from the original feminists’ determination to have it all. (And you’ll find any number of first generation feminist op-eds yelling about it). Women who aren’t taking work seriously and are living off of their husband’s income are far less likely to divorce as the first option–especially since the other bad news about divorce that started pouring in during this time was the huge cut in standard of living that women took.

    In this formulation, the women more likely to stay home or live their lives off their husband’s income were the women who had husbands with good jobs, and they were less likely to divorce as a result.

    This theory of mine would explain the more stable marriages at the higher end of the income spectrum. At the lower end, I agree with those who attribute the higher divorce/low marriage rates to the loss of economic opportunities for men.

  • The Other John Mc

    Some potentially relevant research, suggesting that mating strategies are ultimately underlying political and religious orientation:

  • ohwilleke

    @#12 The point you raise about the attitudes of the college educated and non-college educated respectively having something to do not with what happened in college, but where they came from before they went to college is an important point.

    There percentage of people who attend and who complete college has increased dramatically over the last few decades, changing their social class origins. Pre-GI Bill, college students had a much higher SES than they do now. And, many jobs (e.g. journalism, business management) that historically didn’t call for a college degree do now.

    On the other hand, college students who actually manage to earn degrees are much less diverse in social class than you’d think if you hadn’t seen the numbers. Working class people are much less likely to attend and much less likely to complete college than their more affluent and well educated peers, even completely controlling for test scores and high school grades. And, test scores and high school grades heavily favor the upper middle class even apart from thee advantages.

    Then again, I’ve seen up close what college can do to attitudes. My parents and their siblings and cousin who went to college from deep in the rural midwest, were all first generation college students. Other siblings and cousins in that generation didn’t go (all together we’re talking about perhaps four or five dozen people in the generation). There is a stark cultural difference between the two.

    Even then, however, I’m not convinced that it was college itself that caused it. The college graduates who got jobs in metro areas experienced dramatic cultural changes. But, the college graduates who settled in near their home towns and applied their degrees to jobs there are very similar culturally to those who never left – a hair more sophisticated and ironic, but not much. It is the social class origins college students had in the first place, the places that a college education tends to cause you to live, and the economic circumstances that having a college education produces, as much as the experience itself, that changes attitudes.

    On the economic point – I think one of the real clinchers within the ranks of the non-college educated is likely to be stability of employment and income. For example, I’d be willing to bet that postal workers and teacher’s aides had much more stable marriages than construction workers and truckers, even if they earned similar amounts on average, had similar levels of education, and similar backgrounds.

  • Tomasz R.

    I don’t understand the question. What does it mean to “make divorce more difficult”? Do they mean more bureaucratic steps and unusually long process, thousands pages of regulations, more fighting in courts, bigger risks (eg. of unfair property division)? Do 50% of people want this?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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