Another for the “As always, Ed Glaeser is right” file…

By Eric Crampton 09/04/2013


Ed Glaeser highlights one of the main advantages real universities have over online alternatives: it’s where you’re most likely to find your best possible spousal match.

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.

He worries about potential perceived elitism of Patton’s phrasing, but he shouldn’t be. So long as people roughly sort into the right colleges, then the statement is true regardless of whether you’re at the world’s top university or somewhere rather farther down the pecking order. The best partner you’re likely ever to be able to afford, given your particular bundle of characteristics, is likely someone at your university.

This might not hold true at universities where a good proportion of students would do far better by instead enrolling at a trade school, but then again, if you’re there, then “making bad choices” is part of your bundle of characteristics as well as part of the bundle of characteristics of your affordable partners. It might also fail to hold if you are enrolled in a graduate programme with a severe gender imbalance and you’re not inclined to mix with students from other disciplines; in that case, dating and eventually marrying the friend of a classmate could be optimal.