College as a Great Equalizer? Marriage and Assortative Mating Among First- and Continuing-Generation College Students

King / Demography / October 2021

College has been hailed as a “great equalizer” that can substantially reduce the influence of parents' socioeconomic status on their children's subsequent life chances. Do the equalizing effects of college extend beyond the well-studied economic outcomes to other dimensions, in particular, marriage? When and whom one marries have important implications for economic and family stability, with marriage acting as a social safety net, encouraging joint long-term investments, and potentially producing dual-earner families. The author focuses on the marriage timing and assortative mating patterns of first- and continuing-generation college graduates to test whether college acts as an equalizer for marriage against alternative hypotheses. Using discrete-time event-history methods and data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, the author finds small differences between first- and continuing-generation graduates in marriage timing, but larger differences in assortative mating, particularly for women. First-generation women have a substantially lower likelihood of marrying another college graduate than do continuing-generation women, and a higher likelihood of marrying a noncollege graduate. These findings highlight the importance of examining noneconomic outcomes when studying social mobility and offer insight into how inequality may persist across generations, especially for women, despite apparent upward mobility.