The value of a college degree may not be what it used to be, from a monetary point of view, but experts have long been touting educational benefits of a different kind -- keeping divorce rates low.
A study recently published in the journal Family Relations found that the theory still holds true -- with overall divorce rates leveling off since the 1980s after more than a century-long rise -- but the rate has increasingly diverged by race and socioeconomic class, when educational attainment is factored in.
In short: Married couples who have attained higher levels of education are less likely to divorce than less-educated couples, but "African-American women don't seem to enjoy the same degree of protection that education confers on marriage," said Jeounghee Kim, assistant professor at Rutgers University, where the study was conducted.
For white Americans, the divorce rate has remained steady since 1980 and this protective effect of education on marriage increased consistently among the recent generations, Kim explained in a release highlighting her work. But for African-American women, college education does not translate into the higher earnings that would help protect marriage, she went on to say.
Kim studied white and African-American women in five-year marriage cohorts starting from 1975 to 1979 and ending in 1995 to 1999. She took into account demographic characteristics including age, motherhood status and post-secondary education (associate degree at minimum) when married, and participants' geographic region. Kim also factored in marital dissolution (within nine years of first marriage) rather than by legal divorce, which many African-American women eschew in favor of a permanent separation.
Last year, a study by researchers at NYU noted that college degree attainment made it much more likely for black women to get hitched in the first place. While “black women have lower odds of ever marrying than white women … getting a college education raises ultimate marriage rates by the 30s and 40s much more substantially for blacks than whites," the study authors wrote.
But Kim says that educational attainment may be insufficient in addressing the high levels of economic inequality that even well-educated African Americans experience, and could be one of the reasons those marriages don't last. "Many are the first in their families to have attained a post-secondary education and do not benefit from the cushion of intergenerational wealth possessed by some white families," she said.
Another reason black women don't reap the same benefit of education on marriage may involve the gender gap in African Americans’ educational attainment, Kim adds, noting that there are nearly twice as many African-American women college graduates as there are men.
"Well-educated white women may still have power to select an equally well-educated mate," Kim said. Together there's a greater chance for "synergy" -- including higher incomes, better and healthier lives and smarter kids -- that helps sustain their marriage.
"On the other hand, the return on higher education may not be the same for many African-American women, who have less chance to marry their educational equals. Also, because they are less likely to marry outside their race, their choices are limited."