Married couples who have attained higher levels of education are less likely to divorce than less-educated couples — except in the African-American community, according to new research.
“African-American women don’t seem to enjoy the same degree of protection that education confers on marriage,” said Jeounghee Kim, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Social Work.
“For white Americans, higher education is related to a lower chance of divorce, and this protective effect of education on marriage increased consistently among the recent generations. But for African-American women, higher education is not necessarily related to a lower chance of divorce.”
In her study, published in the journal Family Relations, Kim observed that while the divorce rate has remained steady for white women since 1980, the trend has been less stable for African-American women.
She studied white and African-American women in five-year marriage cohorts starting from 1975 to 1979 and ending in 1995 to 1999. The researcher also took into account demographic characteristics, such as age, geographic region, motherhood status and post-secondary education (associate degree at minimum) when married.
She then measured 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.
Kim’s analysis revealed that the percentage of white women with some post-secondary education continuously increased throughout the cohorts. This was not the case with African-American women, whose educational attainment peaked in the 1985-1994 cohorts before declining.
At the same time, she found the percentage of white women getting divorced declined throughout the study period, while African-American women experienced an increase in the 1980s before declining in the 1990 to 1994 cohort.
Kim said her findings were consistent with much existing literature that says that women with higher levels of education — and greater earning potential — make more attractive marriage partners. Also, their marriages tend to last longer than those of their counterparts — particularly among white women — with less education.
But the research also raises questions about why African-American women’s higher education does not have a strong protective effect on marriage.
“One possibility is that college education does not translate into the higher earnings that would help protect marriage for African-Americans,” she said. “Another could be that educational attainment may be insufficient to address the high levels of economic inequality that even well-educated African-Americans experience. 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.”
A third possibility involves the gender gap in African-Americans’ educational attainment — there are nearly twice as many African-American women college graduates as men.
“We see the increasing power of education protecting marriage within the same socioeconomic class,” Kim said. “Well-educated white women may still have power to select an equally well-educated mate. Then, there may be a synergy factor — higher incomes, better and healthier lives, 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,” she continues. “Also, because they are less likely to marry outside their race, their choices are limited.”