Hundreds of thousands of students will be heading to university for the first time this week and the majority of them will be women. By the time this first year class dons cap and gown the gender imbalance will be even greater; if the trend from recent years continues, and there is every reason to believe that it will, four years from now there will be 156 female graduates for every 100 male graduates.
While there is nothing new about this trend – women have outnumbered men on university campuses since the late 1980s – its persistence means that when the current class of female students starts to think about marrying they will find equally well-educated men in seriously short supply; in 2009, 34 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 26 per cent of men the same age.
But there is another side to this coin. If well-educated women are having a hard time finding men who share their level of education, then it has to be true that for women who did not continue their education after high school there is an abundance of equally educated men.
So, has the gender imbalance in university education improved the marriage prospects of less-educated Canadian women?
I would say no, and in fact I would go further and argue that the widening gender gap in education has limited the marriage options for women with less education.
Most women postpone marriage and childbearing until they have completed their education and so, on average, less-educated women tend to marry earlier than well-educated women. These women have an initial advantage on the marriage market, not only because they have access to the much larger pool of less-educated men, but also because they are searching at a time when many other women are not on the marriage market.
That advantage doesn’t last for long, however, and less-educated women who either choose to postpone marriage, or are divorced by their mid-twenties, soon find themselves competing on a marriage market with women who are both better educated and earn higher incomes than themselves.
With a persistent shortage of educated men, educated women have revised their expectations of what they are looking for in a husband and many are marrying men who are not only less educated than themselves, but also younger.
And with the earning ability of less-educated workers in decline, men are revising their expectations of what they are looking for in a wife and many are choosing to marry women whose earning ability meets or exceeds their own.
There may be a relative abundance of less-educated men, but the increasing willingness of educated women to marry down, and of less-educated men to marry up, in terms of education has created a shortage of men who have the means to support a family.
While the marriage rate of well-educated women has fallen over the whole period that the gender gap in education has widened – from 65 per cent in 1981 to 57 per cent in 2006 – that decline is trivial compared that of less educated women over the same period – from 76 per cent to 53 per cent.
The growing gender gap in education alone is not responsible falling marriage rates, but it has worked to disenfranchise less-educated women from the marriage market excluding them, and their children, from the economic privileges that go hand in hand with marriage.
Marina Adshade is the author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love and teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics.