Volume VI, #13
My wife Yahlin and I got married where we’d met nearly a dozen years earlier: college. Because we were living in New York and both working full-time, we sought help from a New Haven theatre set designer who moonlighted as a wedding planner. Or rather, Yahlin sought help. I wasn’t particularly interested in the minutiae of floral arrangements or hors d’oeuvres.
On the day, two hours before the ceremony as Yahlin was dealing with hair and bridesmaids, I walked into the dining hall with my sister and discovered pink as far as my eye could see. Shocked and stunned, I called our wedding planner to see what could be done: “Could you make it a little less pink, less like a Sweet 16 party?” He curtly responded that he was next door in the chapel setting up our chuppah, and had a mind to leave the unfinished chuppah, walk over to the dining hall, and slug me. “Are you seriously comparing my design to a Sweet 16 party?” My heart skipped a beat (and not in a good-wedding way). Fortunately, my sister helped me calm down. Then I apologized and calmed him down and the wedding proceeded apace. Turns out he was absolutely right. By evening, without afternoon light streaming through the dining hall windows, the pink looked terrific. Not at all like a Sweet 16 party. When all was said and done, it was a magical evening and I’d almost recovered from my self-induced near-heart attack (although it took an inordinate amount of time for me to overcome my embarrassment and recount to Yahlin the story of nearly wrecking our wedding).
Like our wedding, despite confrontations, mishaps and embarrassments, marriage is one of the things we’re told is the source of physical, emotional and financial well-being. Research is crystal clear that married people are healthier and happier than unmarried people – even those that cohabitate but opt not to marry. Married people have better cognitive function, are less depressed and live longer than unmarrieds. Marriage also seems to provide financial benefits: household income of married adults is about 40% higher than unmarried adults (no doubt because more married households have dual incomes, and it’s cheaper for two people to live together than apart). But when the number of working adults in a household is held constant, there’s still an income gap – a gap that’s been widening for nearly half a century.
Is marriage the cause of these many benefits, or is it merely correlation? Bella DePaulo, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara argues that all studies of marriage are flawed – the result of selection bias. “Clinically depressed people and addicts find it difficult to get married, so fewer married people are depressed or addicted… If you want to say that getting married and staying married is better for your health than staying single,” she says, “then you need to compare the people who chose to stay married with those who chose to stay single. And I don’t know of any studies that have done so.”
If this is true for marriage, it’s doubly true for college. Earning a bachelor’s degree also purports to increase income, improve health, happiness and well-being and extend life. Over the course of their lives, college graduates earn $800k more than high school graduates. College graduates are less likely to smoke and more likely to be active. The ever-widening life expectancy gap between the most and least educated populations is now 14 years for men and 10 years for women.
But as with marriage, no studies demonstrate causation as opposed to correlation. People who end up graduating from college are people who are going to end up richer, happier and healthier anyway. In fact, whether or not your kids go to college seems to have a bigger impact on your life expectancy than whether you did, indicating the benefits aren’t flowing from the higher education experience itself. In the absence of any causal link, it’s much more likely that marriage and college are simply SSPD: Stuff Successful People Do.
Last week I added a number to my Greatest Hits of marriage mishaps by launching into this subject over dinner with Yahlin. Not just any dinner: our 14th wedding anniversary dinner. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t pleased with the direction of the conversation: “Are you seriously saying you’d be happier if you weren’t married?” As usual, I apologized and calmed her down, then – another error – continued my research as soon as we got home.
Turns out getting divorced is bad news all around. In fact, it’s likely that divorced people are worse off across the board – less healthy, less happy – than people who never married to begin with, all other things being equal. They’re certainly worse off financially. Yahlin was glad to hear it.
Likewise, people who go to college and drop out are worse off than people who never went to college to begin with. This is what kept former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan up at night: “if you have inordinate debt and no degree, you're in a worse situation than where you started.” Which might not be a problem, except that the percentage of those who start bachelor’s degrees without completing (46%) is almost exactly equal to the percentage of marriages that end in divorce. Quite simply, if you’re not going to stay married, you probably shouldn’t get married. And if you’re not going to complete your degree program, you probably shouldn’t go to college. In college, as in marriage: half will, half won’t. The problem is, to paraphrase John Wanamaker, you don’t know which half.
And all the good advice that’s been given over the years about being careful whom you marry, not rushing to get married, and not getting married unless you’re sure? If only a fraction of that advice had been offered to those contemplating starting bachelor’s degrees, our economy wouldn’t be weighed down by $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. America’s devil-may-care, more-is-better-no-matter-the-cost, scattershot attitude towards bachelor’s degrees is put into stark relief when contrasted with our much more cautious approach to matching in matrimony.
Both marriage and bachelor’s degrees are social constructs – markers of SSPD. But whereas marriage has been with us since before the dawn of recorded history, college is a relatively recent invention (the last millennium).
Both institutions exist, at least in part, for the benefit of others. Marriage is a better arrangement for raising children. This explains why there are over 1,000 laws that provide legal or financial benefits to married couples – and the importance of granting marital status to all couples who desire it. And because there’s no scenario in which marriage becomes less important for kids, although women continue to wait longer to get married, no one is seriously predicting the demise of the institution. Quite the opposite: it’s expanding.
The question of who actually benefits from a bachelor’s degree is more nebulous. Employers have benefited from using degrees as a crude filter; successful candidates are likely to have exhibited SSPD. This is why we’ve seen degree inflation across the economy: jobs that previously didn’t require more than high school now list bachelor’s degrees as required; jobs that previously required bachelor’s degrees now demand master’s degrees.
On the other hand, college is becoming less important for employers because other signals of success are gaining in fidelity and volume. As I noted last month, a range of new providers of competency data are now on the scene, busy figuring out how to integrate into the hiring process. As employers shift from degree-based hiring to competency-based hiring, and as shorter, less expensive, more career-connected credentials continue to flood the market – hopefully offered by accredited colleges and universities (increasing the likelihood that these new credentials provide equivalent preparation on core cognitive capabilities like critical thinking and problem solving) – hopefully offered by accredited colleges and universities – it is highly likely that the value of a bachelor’s degree to employers as a signal of SSPD will diminish in the next few years. (Employers also benefit from getting more mature candidates; I know of no employer currently eager to recruit 18- and 19-year-olds into entry-level professional jobs. But this, too, will change; it’s hard to imagine that simply waiting to start one’s career will be a useful marker of SSPD.) And as degree requirements begin to fall out of job descriptions, expect a lot more good advice about being careful, not rushing to enroll, and not enrolling unless you’re sure you’ll complete – and expect a lot more students to follow that advice.
Who will continue to benefit from the institution of the four-year bachelor’s degree? Certainly the nearly 4M faculty and staff currently employed by America’s colleges and universities, but as we’ve seen in other sectors, employees alone aren’t a sufficient constituency to permanently resist market forces.
Returning to marriage, it’s possible bachelor’s degrees will remain a viable social construct to serve marriage. Even if tomorrow’s students aren’t the primary beneficiaries of their own education, like me, they will be the primary beneficiaries of their future spouse’s education. More and more couples are meeting in college and marrying, and college educated couples have lower divorce rates. So marriage might be the best hope for the bachelor’s degree. Although it would be hard to dream up a more costly matchmaking scheme.
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