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College and Marriage May Not Mix for the Disadvantaged

Wedding Couple
(Image credit: © Dotzidea |

For people from disadvantaged backgrounds, college can offer the promise of a lucrative career. But new research finds that for this group, college also decreases the odds of getting married.

In general, education is linked with marriage: About half of Americans are currently married, but that number rises to 64 percent among college graduates. A college education also increases the likelihood of having a marriage that lasts, studies show. But for people who grow up disadvantaged, a college education seems to trap them between social worlds, according to a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

"College students are becoming more diverse in their social backgrounds, but they nonetheless remain a socioeconomically select group," study researcher Kelly Musick, a sociologist at Cornell University, said in a statement. "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."

In other words, college students from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds may be reluctant to "marry down" to partners with less education, but they also may not "marry up" to partners with more privileged backgrounds.

Musick and her colleagues used data from a sample of 3,200 Americans from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a group that was followed from adolescence into adulthood. They estimated the propensity of men's and women's college attendance based on family income, parental education and other indicators of social background and early academic achievement. They then grouped their subjects into social strata based on these propensity scores and compared marriage chances of college- and non-college-goers within each stratum. 

They found that for the least-advantaged men, college reduced the odds of marriage by 38 percent. For the least-advantaged women, that number was 22 percent.

In comparison, those who came into college with advantages got a marriage boost. Among the highest social stratum, men who attended college increased their likelihood of marriage by 31 percent. Women in the highest social stratum increased their odds by 8 percent.

"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."

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.