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Princeton's Marriage Market Theory Worked for Me

April 03, 2013

By Edward L. Glaeser

Most of my research deals with the economics of cities, but I have a smattering of knowledge in the minor field of spouse-meeting at Princeton.

There is usually little demand for such arcana -- the American Economic Association has never held a symposium on the topic -- but the blogospheric explosion after an alumna’s letter to the Daily Princetonian advising female students to "find a husband on campus before you graduate" led my editor to urge me to weigh in.

While I don’t feel I can provide advice to young women, I am comfortable, based on both personal experience and the infallible majesty of economic theory, urging young male Princetonians to view your female classmates as prospective long-term friends and spouses (the qualifications for the two roles having much in common), rather than short-term amorous encounters.

The letter writer, Susan Patton, is surely right that for many people, college years provide the high point of intense exposure to a wide range of prospective life partners.

However, my own finely tuned algebraic simulations of an optimal spousal-search model find that while college provides an ideal time to accumulate a large stock of good friends (prospective spouses), it is typically suboptimal to wed at age 21 because of preference uncertainty and the benefits of continuing to meet alternatives.

In my own life, which has always been based on a rigorous application of optimization methods, the equations dictated that I meet my future wife in line at a Princeton dining hall at age 17, but that we should not date for another 15 years and not wed until after our 15th reunion.

Patton’s phrase that "you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you" has been interpreted as unpleasant elitism. Her critics are certainly right that neither Princeton nor Harvard has any particular monopoly on virtue or intellect. Another interpretation is that what she said could have applied to any tightly knit campus of full-time students.

The college experience is profoundly different from what comes before and after in life. It is when 19-year-olds have chance encounters in different settings that make it easy to befriend and evaluate others. And they have enough free time to follow relationships where they may lead. Few of us will ever again walk into a dining hall filled with 100 interesting members of the opposite sex of roughly the same age.

Most of life is far more structured and far less diverse. Dates and bar encounters present only a dimly lit window into a person’s character. Workplace romances occur, but they create challenges on the job and can produce marriages that are short on industrial or occupational diversification. Optimal portfolio theory, applied to marital choice, suggests that better diversification can push households closer to the risk-return frontier.

Patton’s letter suggests that the selectivity of Princeton can bring added benefits in the marriage market. That may be correct. It’s not that one’s college classmates are likely to be smarter than subsequent associates. Rather, the college-selection process tries to create a vibrant social mix, while company hiring often doesn’t. The admissions system even cares about selecting nice people -- believe me, I’ve been to those meetings. Dance clubs don’t.

A final benefit of meeting your spouse in college is the shared early experiences, which then mold preferences and generate cultural baggage for both of you. Only by marrying a fellow Princetonian can you be sure of having a spouse who will share your passion for the excessive use of orange and black in clothing, furniture, sheets and so on.

The role that colleges can play in forging lifelong friendships, and even marriages, also makes a deeper point. Princeton has nothing to fear from online learning. The face-to-face experience is just too important, not only as a tool for education but for creating the social relationships that are the real stuff of life.

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