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THE BIG IDEA

The college gender gap has transformed the dating world

One of the biggest romantic challenges facing college-educated women is demographics.Adobe Stock

There are dating disasters, and there are dating disasters.

Most disasters are garden variety: You got stood up, you couldn’t get a word in during dinner, you got creeped out. But then there are disasters that have nothing to do with individual people or dates. Instead, they result from something completely out of our control: demographics.

Author and journalist Jon Birger started to sense that there was something horribly wrong with dating when he was a senior writer at Fortune Magazine in the early 2000s. Normally, he covered markets: oil, agriculture, stocks. But at his workplace, Birger says, “I couldn’t help but notice that all the guys were either married like myself, or in long-term relationships. Whereas the women at Fortune — who I think I can safely say had more going for them than we guys did — they were disproportionately single.”

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At first, he wondered if there was something strange about his workplace. But his wife, a lawyer, found her experience mirrored his. “Particularly if you live in a city like Boston or New York, you just know all these fabulous single women in their 30s and 40s who can’t seem to meet a half-decent guy,” he said.

So Birger, who knew a strange market when he saw one, went hunting for data. At first, he thought this was a big-city problem. But, as it turned out, this wasn’t about jobs or about big cities. It was about college.

As I noted in a recent column, women now outnumber men on college campuses. And not by a little. About 60 percent of US college students are now women; only 40 percent are men. The last time there was parity, Birger says, was back in the 1980s.

And the reality is that people who have college degrees tend to date other people with college degrees. But that tendency leads to a numerical mismatch, which, for both white-collar women and blue-collar men, can have profound consequences.

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Let me pause here for a few caveats: First, these ratios, of course, have no impact on people seeking same-sex relationships. Second, not everyone interested in a heterosexual relationship wants to get married. And third, this column will mostly focus on white-collar women, but there is an equally important story to be told from the perspective of blue-collar men.

So, back to the mismatch: If you look at 18- to-34-year-olds in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, the most recent census data reveal that there are almost 20 percent more college-educated women than men. And Boston has one of the more balanced ratios in the country.

Birger, who grew up in Brookline, says that when he was writing his book “Date-onomics,” he found places that were so lopsided, they knocked his socks off. West Virginia, for example, had approximately 60 percent more college-educated young women than men.

Boston, along with places like Santa Clara County — around Silicon Valley — are less skewed, Birger believes, because of the prominence of tech workers, who are more likely to be male.

But still. Dating in a place that has nearly 20 percent more college-educated women than men is tough.

A single friend of mine who’s in her mid-30s told me that all the men she knows are married. But, she notes, “I know tons of single women. They’re highly educated. Super successful. Multiple graduate degrees. Gorgeous.”

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My friend, who lives in Boston and has a graduate degree herself, says it’s hard to find people to date. “You wait it out. But the ‘waiting it out’ gets old. So what do you do?”

Birger makes the case that “waiting it out” is, ultimately, not a great strategy for women.

Think about the dating pool as a game of musical chairs, he says. You start off with 40 women and 30 men — very similar to the ratio faced by your average 30-year-old college grad. “Once 20 of the women and 20 of the men get married, the ratio among the remaining singles becomes 20 to 10. A two-to-one ratio. Once 5 more couples pair off, it becomes 15 to 5. A three-to-one ratio.”

“And this is why all of us know these incredible women in their 40s ... who can’t seem to meet a decent guy. It’s not because they suck at dating, which is what their mothers and married friends have been telling them for the last 15 years. This is a demographic problem.”

That kind of imbalance also tends to coarsen dating culture, says Birger. Which you can see — in an exaggerated form — on college campuses, where there are often 40, 50, or 60 percent more women than men.

At Boston University, where there are close to 40 percent more women, the effects quickly become clear. Ellie Hamilton, a first-year student, says that “men think they’re a scarce resource on campus, because, honestly, they kind of are.”

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Hamilton says that the imbalance makes men more confident that if they break up with one woman, they can easily find another. And it makes her “super insecure. He has his choice of all these different girls. Why would he choose me?”

Women who get older but remain unmarried can “feel a little left out of society,” my 30-something friend told me. “Because at a certain point in life, people pair off, and do family things. ... Like even work functions and things, you’re expected to have a plus-one.”

And there are ripple effects that can alter lives forever: Many of us know women who have decided to have kids on their own, or to freeze their eggs, in hopes that they will be able to conceive once they can find the right relationship.

Of course, there is a potential solution to this problem, which may have occurred to you by now.

Why don’t college-educated women date men without college degrees? The numbers of women and men in the United States are about the same — the mismatch is simply their level of educational attainment.

That’s exactly what has to happen, argues Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings.

“This is the new normal,” he says. “And I wonder if there’s some period of cultural adjustment, during which people have to get used to marrying differently.”

Both Reeves and Birger note that over the past few decades, just as the gap in college attendance has been widening, another social trend has become more pronounced: people seeking out partners with similar levels of education. In fact, men with college educations tend to be even pickier about marrying women with college educations than the other way around.

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Reeves points out that the speed at which women have zoomed ahead of men in higher education, since the passage of Title IX in 1972, has been shocking. He says that for some groups, this disparity is even more pronounced: More than two-thirds of the BA and MA degrees earned by Black Americans are now earned by Black women.

For women and men seeking life partners, these large-scale shifts have resulted in pain and dislocation. Pain for both college-educated women and non-college-educated men, who, if they seek to find mates with similar levels of education, will frequently find themselves alone.

Birger, who mostly concentrated on the female side of the equation, talked to many women who were advised to “prioritize career in their 20s, because there’s this idea that that’s what you’re supposed to do.” He says that the women “felt tricked, that nobody told them it would be so much harder at 29 than it was at 24, or certainly at 39 than it was at 24.”

Birger has sought solutions, which aren’t clear or easy, and details them in the book “Make Your Move.” Among other things, he recommends women abandon dating apps, consider dating younger men, let men know when they’re interested (instead of waiting to be asked out), and, of course, date men with various levels of education.

As college attendance numbers have shifted over the last few decades, a statistical tidal wave has begun to reshape society. But too many men and women — unaware of what’s happening — blame themselves. They doubt their attractiveness, their accomplishments, their awesomeness. They are not the problem.


Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.