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Why encourage college but not marriage?

Published: Tuesday, April 9 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

In the United States there is a strong college wage premium: people who go to college make more money on average than people who don’t. There is also a marriage wage premium, which is roughly as significant and as consistent as the college wage premium.

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In the United States there is a strong college wage premium: people who go to college make more money on average than people who don’t. There is also a marriage wage premium, which is roughly as significant and as consistent as the college wage premium. In fact based on figures from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, George Mason Economics professor Bryan Caplan calculates that men earn 34 percent more if they are college graduates, and 44 percent more if they're married.

Caplan argues that when people "look at the size of that college premium, they usually conclude that more people should go to college. On a personal level, they urge individuals to enroll. On a policy level, they don't just favor all the existing measures that encourage college attendance; they want government to redouble its efforts," he wrote on his blog EconLog. He wonders why, "when people — economists and non-economists alike — look at the size of the male marriage premium, they barely respond."

Economists around the Web responded.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, an economics writer for Forbes.com, suggests that part of the problem is how economists see themselves:

"Meanwhile, economists’ 'cosmopolitan perspective' makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a 'personal choice' in a way that going to college isn’t). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgment. And it’s a completely defensible one.

"But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored. And, of course, the thing that academic economics focuses on has an effect on elite debate and public policy, especially when the socially liberal, pro-higher ed biases of economists line up well with those of the rest of the elite."

Megan McArdle, economics writer for the Daily Beast, suggested we fail to emphasize the marriage premium for social reasons:

"All economists are, definitionally, very good at college. Not all economists are good at marriage. Saying that more people should go to college will make 0 percent of your colleagues feel bad. Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad. And in general, most people have an aversion to topics which are likely to trigger a personal grudge in a coworker."

Justin Wolfers, professor of economics at the University of Michigan, tweeted a response implying that the marriage premium is not emphasized because it is not the formative cause of the higher wages.

"There's no credible evidence justifying the claim that the marriage wage premium is causal."

Caplan shot back at Wolfers with nine reasons he should rethink his position. Most prominent is the fact that "the marriage premium (for men) and marriage penalty (for women) persists after controlling for age, education, race, and a long list of other confounding variables."

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