Monkey Business, Adobe Stock
Men are increasingly "marrying up" in terms of their bride's education level, according to an analysis for the Institute for Family Studies that also finds that may not mean the woman makes more money than her husband.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Men are increasingly "marrying up" in terms of their bride's education level, according to an analysis for the Institute for Family Studies that also finds that may not mean the woman makes more money than her husband.

Using data from the census and the American Community Survey, institute director of research Wendy Wang tracked a shift that began in 1990 when the portion of men who were better educated than their spouses started to drop. About the same time, young women started attending and graduating from college at higher rates than young men.

Decennial Census and American Community Survey, IPUMS files
Decennial Census and American Community Survey, IPUMS files

In 2015, 32 percent of women who married had a spouse whose education level was lower than hers. Conversely, just 1 in 5 newlywed men married a woman with less education. That's a contrast to 1960, when the man was better educated in nearly 4 of 5 couples.

But untangling the basis of the trend is more nuanced than the headlines, Wang said. The change is actually about who marries and who pursues education. People who have high school diplomas or who dropped out of school are less likely to marry than more educated peers. College graduates, however, are increasingly likely to tie the knot.

Spencer James, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, couches it slightly differently: "The poor don't marry anymore, and women are more likely than men to earn college degrees. I think you will continue to see this pattern of more and more egalitarian marriages as we go forward and these patterns persist throughout our society."

Different value

Back in 1960, the share of couples who were both college grads was a minuscule 2 percent, now up to 9 percent. Now, too, 6 percent of couples both have graduate degrees.

But who makes the money is a different story.

Aaron Thorup, Decennial Census and American Community Survey, IPUMS files
Decennial Census and American Community Survey, IPUMS files

The analysis shows that in 2015, 73 percent of men out-earned their spouse, down from 91 percent in 1960. Meanwhile, across those same decades, the share of women who out-earned their husbands grew from 6 percent to 25 percent.

Wang found that in 2015, 60 percent of men with less education than their wives earned more than their wives. And in couples where the husband is better educated or equally educated, the proportion of men who out-earn their wives is even greater.

Part of it is a gender pay gap, Wang said, but other factors are also at play. She told the Deseret News that research shows never-married women seeking a spouse look for "someone with a steady job and financial security, so there's still this kind of traditional view of what is an ideal partner. ... In a sense, income compensates for less education." Men, on the other hand, seek matching ideas about raising a family.

When experts talk about "more and more people looking for spouses who are similar in terms of education or background or income, it's only true among the college-educated," Wang said. Others are "less likely to marry within their own group now."

And again, those who are not well-educated may simply not marry at all.

In determining who married up or down or straight across, Wang compared education levels between spouses in four categories: high school or less, some college, college graduate or advanced degrees.

She notes that in this analysis "men benefit more from women's progress in the workplace and in education" because overall income is higher.

Marriage trends have been shifting for some time, James said. In the past, studies found some women would rather not marry at all than marry someone with less education — especially college-educated women.

As for earnings, "I find it disheartening but not surprising that the gender gap in pay continues to be seen — even when the wife does have greater educational opportunities and more educational achievement, she still earns less than her husband," James said.

Making sense of cents

"The data focuses on two trends that don't align — and that is interesting," said Virginia Rutter, sociologist and department chair at Framingham State University. "The level-of-education finding says that you can't predict as easily based on gender which partner has more, less or the same education, so there's growing equality. But this growing equality in training doesn't lead to shared benefits from training and education. Men still get more.

"It makes me think about the idea out there that education is the solution to economic inequality. If you do everything right — get education, go to work — it should work out. But ... there is a lot of persistent gender inequality."

Researchers couch the gender pay gap differently, depending on what they're comparing, James said. "It still persists, but it's not as large when you account for career choices men versus women tend to make, so you hear different estimates: Women earn 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, 83 cents for every dollar."

When you compare men and women in the same career with similar levels of education and experience, the pay gap may narrow to pennies, he said.

That's similar to what the Deseret News found when it examined the gender pay gap in August. "Data show that when profession and a host of other factors are taken into account, it explains much of the wage gap — but the gap doesn't disappear entirely," the article noted.

"I think the lesson is that gender norms are continuing to change the way that men and women interact in their household," James said. He noted a perhaps unexpected benefit of the trend Wang analyzed. "One of the best indicators of how well children do is their mother's education. It's not their dad's education."