October 2013

Marriage and divorce: patterns by gender, race, and educational attainment


In our research for this article, we use data collected through 2010, which is when the youngest of the sample members were age 46. At each interview, NLSY79 respondents report whether their marital status has changed since the date of their last interview. Respondents who have experienced a change in marital status are asked to list each change and report the type and date of that change.

Using these reports, NLS staff calculates start dates for the first through third marriages and end dates (if any) for the first and second marriages. In the same way, we use the respondent reports on type and date of marital change to create start and end dates for additional marriages. One issue that arises in creating a history of marital changes is the treatment of marital separations. In some instances, respondents report a separation prior to divorce. However, in other instances, respondents report a transition from marriage directly to divorce. Separations are ignored in both the creation of these variables by survey staff and our work in classifying the termination of higher order marriages. Divorce and widowhood are classified as the termination of marriage.

The sample criteria used in this study require that a sample member participated in an NLSY79 interview at age 45 or older, reported valid dates for the start and any end of all marriages, and reported his or her highest grade completed in round 9 (1988) or a later round of data collection. The most recent report of highest grade completed is used to classify respondents on the basis of educational attainment.

This study examines marriage and divorce patterns among people between the ages of 15 and 46 using a sample of 7,357 men and women who had 8,112 marriages during those ages. The data are weighted using custom weights that make the sample used in the study statistically representative of the population from which the NLSY79 was drawn.10

Tables 1 and 2 provide some information about the sample composition. The sample is composed of about 51 percent men and 49 percent women. Non-Black non-Hispanics make up almost 80 percent of the sample, with Blacks and Hispanics composing the remainder at 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively.11 For the remainder of the paper, the term White is used as shorthand for the group of non-Black non-Hispanics; included in the “White” group are Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans as well as Whites. Note that in the NLSY79 more than 90 percent of non-Black non-Hispanics are White. The educational distribution shows that 13 percent of the NLSY79 cohort did not complete high school, 36 percent completed high school but did not go on to college, 24 percent attended some college including earning an associate’s degree, and 27 percent earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Table 1. Sample characteristics of survey respondents
CharacteristicSample size(1)Percent









Hispanic or Latino


Black non-Hispanic


Non-Black non-Hispanic


Educational attainment


Less than high school diploma


High school graduate, no college


Some college or associate’s degree


Bachelor’s degree or higher



(1) The sample sizes are unweighted. The data used in this study, however, are weighted such that the sample employed is representative of those born in the years 1957–1964 and living in the United States in 1978.

Note: The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 consists of men and women who were born in the years 1957–1964 and were ages 14 to 22 when first interviewed in 1979. These individuals were ages 45 to 52 in 2010–2011. Race and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity groups are mutually exclusive. Educational attainment is as of the most recent survey.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Table 2 provides additional breakdowns of the sample by educational attainment for men, women, and each of the race/ethnicity groups. We provide additional detail on the composition of the subgroups by educational attainment because the subsequent tables show that marital outcomes are strongly related to educational attainment.12


11 For the definitions used in this paper, race and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity are mutually exclusive. The NLSY79 sample was drawn such that it was representative of Blacks, Hispanics, and non-Black non-Hispanics living in the United States in 1979. In this paper, these are the three race/ethnic groups considered.

12 The smallest subsamples are those for college-educated Hispanics, which comprised 79 men and 99 women. When weighted each of these cells represents about half of a percent of the NLSY79 population.

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About the Author

Alison Aughinbaugh

Alison Aughinbaugh is a research economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Omar Robles

Omar Robles is a research economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hugette Sun

Hugette Sun is a research economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.