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Mismatches in the Marriage Market

I work with Dan Lichter and Jeff Swigert. We have been examining the degree to which there is a structural mismatch in the marriage market. We have data on about 4% of Americans where we match single women in the survey to married women that otherwise have similar characteristics. We use the characteristics of the husbands of those matches to determine the likely characteristics of each single woman’s husband if she were married, which we call her “synthetic husband.” These synthetic husbands answer important questions about why there is such an imbalance in the marriage market and what the imbalance looks like.

First, we can look at the supply of characteristics of the single men in our data (over 2 million single men). We then compare the supply with the demand for those characteristics in marriage to see if there is an imbalance. The results indicate that unmarried women, on average, are looking for a man who has an income that is about 66% higher and a likelihood of having a college degree that is about 49% higher than what is available. These results indicate that there does seem to be a large structural mismatch in the marriage market with a shortage of men with college degrees and higher incomes.

What might be causing this mismatch in the marriage market? Two patterns provide the strongest explanation. First, women are more likely to obtain a college degree compared to men (with women obtaining over 57% of the bachelor’s degrees). Second, there is strong evidence of hypergamy with men seeking out a spouse who is younger and has less education. The combination of these two patterns leaves a large number of highly educated women with a lower chance of finding a possible match.

Jon Birger describes these types of mismatches in his book Date-onomics. He notes an imbalanced gender ratio of college graduates appears to lead to a variety of behavioral changes, including the hook-up culture on college campuses and delays in the age of marriage. Paradoxically, it seems that as women achieve more in life they may find it more difficult to find a spouse.

Let me now speak as the father of three amazing daughters (I also have four fantastic sons, but I’m not as worried for them since they are all likely to go to college and find themselves with lots of options in the marriage market). I think we need to adopt a new narrative about early marriage. This isn’t about teen marriages (which have largely disappeared) but rather about meeting a future spouse and possibly getting married while in college.

First, college provides a large set of potential matches of people with similar interests and aptitude. Second, college provides an environment where dating and courting are rather inexpensive, with lots of fun and free activities offered on campuses. Finally, getting married in college allows a couple to grow rich together and make important life decisions together. Some worry that marriage will get in the way of their studies. There isn’t really any research on this topic for undergraduate students, possibly because (outside of BYU) it is pretty rare to marry while completing an undergraduate degree.

My own research, using a sample of over 22,000 Ph.D. students, found that the married students were more likely to graduate and completed their degree in less time. Another potential downside to marriage during college is the challenge of finding the ideal graduate program or job for the two individuals in the same location. In addition, children often accompany marriage and juggling children and school can be challenging, particularly for women.

I definitely want my daughters to enjoy their time at college and pick a challenging major that will engage all of their interests and talents. However, I hope they also keep open the option that they might find that person they want to marry and spend forever with while they are pursuing those other goals. My wife, Emily, and I were able to marry while going to school together. We helped each other finish our degrees and those first years of marriage in a small campus apartment together have created a reference point that has made all our housing arrangements since then seem pretty nice in comparison.