How Marriage and College Switched Places
by Daniel Markovits
… [In years past] School and work were not a path to wealth and status—certainly not for women, nor even for men. Elites were indifferent to education and disdained work.
The landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice look down on Elizabeth’s working uncle, no matter that he gets his income from “a very respectable line of trade.”
….Courtship and marriage [back in the day] were as ruthless as schooling was casual.
Because elites married instrumentally—to shore up lineages—everyone wanted to marry the same people for the same reasons; even those who saw through the regime could not completely escape it.
…Marrying well demanded skill, judgment, and luck. The challenge of marrying to secure wealth, status, and love was so great that it could sustain the forward progress of a novel, as it does in Pride and Prejudice. The basic pattern was repeated in so many stories that critics have given it a name: the marriage plot.
The path to the top looks very different today, almost a mirror image in which work and school have traded places with inheritance and marriage.
The rich no longer disdain but embrace work.
…Meanwhile degrees, preferably from top universities, are the new inheritances, and even marriage now depends on school. The share of marriages in which both partners possess college degrees grew by 800 percent from 1960 to 2010.
Today, schooling is how elites secure income and pass their privilege down to their children.
…The dangers associated with status seeking that Austen documented have also shifted settings. Nowadays people marry for love, and schooling is ensnared by competitive forces much like those that threatened to pervert the course of love for Elizabeth Bennet. Education itself has been distorted in the process, as the marriage plot has given way to the college plot.
…The path to these top incomes runs through an elite education. Many of the jobs on the one-percenter list impose formal degree requirements, and most require college or professional degrees in practice.
…Education today is like marriage once was in another way also: Students and schools confront an intense two-way matching system—a modern version of the marriage market that Austen described. Today, bringing the college plot to a successful conclusion requires resources, energy, skill, and luck.
Continue reading that very long Atlantic article here.