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The Iona Blog

Why do economists recommend college for its benefits but not marriage?

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 23rd March 2013

Why do economists strongly recommend schemes promoting higher levels of college education, but almost never promote schemes to incentivise marriage? After all, both are beneficial.

It's an interesting question, posed by writer Megan McArdle in this blog.  

She points out that both third level education and marriage are linked to higher earning power and a longer life, but economists tend to favour encouraging one of these things (going to college) and tend to ignore the other (marriage).

She quotes French author Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry who suggests why it might be that economists are happy for the State to promote higher levels of participation in third level education, but squeamish about similar efforts to promote marriage:  

“[E]conomists’ “cosmopolitan perspective”................makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a “personal choice” in a way that going to college isn’t). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgement. And it’s a completely defensible one.

“But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on, and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored. And, of course, the thing that academic economics focuses on has an effect on elite debate and public policy, especially when the socially liberal, pro-higher ed biases of economists line up well with those of the rest of the elite.”

McArdle has some other theories as to why economists take such radically different positions on marriage and college education.

It could be, she suggests, that “it's easier to get college professors to teach useful classes than it is to get spouses to treat each other well”, in other words, public policy can have a far greater impact on improving third level education then it can on improving marriage.

Or, she speculates, it could be that economists don't want “to make people who fail to marry feel bad, since many of them probably feel pretty bad about it already”.

But, as McArdle points out, there are problems with both of these explanations:  

“Economists who spend a lot of time talking about getting people into college do not, on average, spend a lot of time talking about how to make colleges better at teaching students.  

“And while it's true that some people may not be marriage material, or have bad luck in finding good partners, and will feel even worse if we tell them that this is also going to make them less happy, rich, and long-lived on average than married people, it is also true that some people aren't college material, and others will fail to graduate due to bad luck or poor decisions. Won't they also feel bad if we keep telling them how awesome college is?”

She suggests another possible explaination: “[A]ll economists are, definitionally, very good at college. Not all economists are good at marriage.

“Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad. Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad.

“And in general, most people have an aversion to topics which are likely to trigger a personal grudge in a coworker.”

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