Princeton alum Susan Patton garnered some publicity by writing a letter to the Daily Princetonian suggesting that the women attending the school take the opportunity to find a mate there:

A few weeks ago, I attended the Women and Leadership conference on campus that featured a conversation between President Shirley Tilghman and Wilson School professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, and I participated in the breakout session afterward that allowed current undergraduate women to speak informally with older and presumably wiser alumnae. I attended the event with my best friend since our freshman year in 1973. You girls glazed over at preliminary comments about our professional accomplishments and the importance of networking. Then the conversation shifted in tone and interest level when one of you asked how have Kendall and I sustained a friendship for 40 years. You asked if we were ever jealous of each other. You asked about the value of our friendship, about our husbands and children. Clearly, you don’t want any more career advice. At your core, you know that there are other things that you need that nobody is addressing. A lifelong friend is one of them. Finding the right man to marry is another.

The reaction and pushback was swift, to say the least. Princeton alum Maureen O’Connor calls the advice sexist (“pushing women — and women alone — to define themselves by their spouses and to make life choices according to an outmoded understanding of romantic attraction”) elitist (“this embarrassing window into how Ivy Leaguers talk to each other should be as cringe-inducing to modern audiences as Patton’s take on gender relations is”) and Nina Bahadur also offers a plethora of criticisms of varying quality.

studentromanceI can understand at least some of the objections. That this advice seems so frequently geared towards women (by a woman with two sons, in this case) has to be grating to women who resent the notion that mate-seeking is of primary or greater importance to women than to men. There is, of course, a rationale behind this view. My own experience aside, women are more likely to rely on her husband for income than vice-versa. And Bahadur’s protestations aside, women complain quite regularly that men do not place sufficient emphasis on intelligence or even look at intelligence as a negative value, which (to me) has the implication that they would value intelligence. Both of these things, are part-and-parcel to precisely what a lot of women view as being wrong with the world, however, and I can understand the reluctance to chart a course accepting a status quo you want to see changed as a given. So the pushback here is, at least to some degree, understandable.

Is it productive? Is Patton right? That, I don’t know.

Someone else pointed to this Atlantic article on the virtues of getting married later in life. It’s looking primarily (though not solely) at income. Which is one metric. It also discusses divorce rates.

Some of this can be chalked up to simple self-selection, though. Which is to say, when getting married later is “the responsible thing” that’s what responsible people are going to be doing, regardless of the merits. If wearing puce every day is “the responsible thing to do” then people who wear puce every day will show better results than people who don’t. Further, getting married later (and finishing college, which the article also focuses on) are indicative of longer time horizons and greater impulse control, which are both conducive to higher earnings.

At the same time, marriage can very much complicate the natural progression of a woman’s (or man’s) career. I had to put my career aside for my wife’s, but I didn’t have to put my college career aside because I’d already graduated by the time we met. There is nothing to stop a group of people from going to college together, but it requires some givens that aren’t always there. In my wife’s case and my own, we didn’t graduate at the same time and she went to medical school a distance away from where she completed undergrad. Would I have had to transfer? Would she have had to forego medical school? Given that Patton specifically exhorts underclassmen girls to date the range, that will inevitably lead to different graduation points. Sacrifices have to be made that don’t have to be made under the post-collegiate progression. At that point, you’re simply looking at situations involving career sacrifices, which are much easier to rebound from than dropping out from college or needless transfers.

My more conservative soul, however, is at least somewhat sympathetic to where Patton is coming from. She is absolutely right that nowhere after college will you be surrounded by such good opportunity. There is almost something cruel about the post-collegiate progression in that respect. It becomes really hard to meet people after college. Especially if you’re not the outgoing type. And, ahem, especially if you’re a guy who works in IT. There is Internet dating and the like, but my success with that was always limited. The Internet (as with BBSes before it) was helpful in meeting the people I did, but the big hits of my life (Julie, Evangeline, Clancy) did not involve online dating sites (as such).

And there are times I really question the wisdom of the status quo. I was not really ready to get married until sometime after I graduated from college. Had I married the girl I was with when I was in college, I’d be divorced or miserable now. It’s impossible to separate that, though, from the society from which I come. If getting married when you’re twenty were common, it would have changed a lot of dynamics. The self-selection issue wouldn’t be there. The “Am I missing something by settling down so young?” questions would cut less deeply, and so on. When social institutions support early marriage, such as in Utah, divorce rates are not appreciably different than elsewhere. The Mormon timeline seems to demonstrate that there is another way. Of course, the Utah experience is not something that non-Mormon (or non-religious, anyway) women are likely to want to embrace. Apropos the above, Utahn women attend and graduate college at lower rates than women nationally (though they graduate at higher rates than men).

Conservative commentator Jonathan Last is making the argument in his new book (that I have not yet read) that we have a “fertility gap” between the number of kids that people are having and the number of kids they want to have. Which means that, not only are people having fewer kids than Ross Douthat might prefer, but they’re having fewer kids than they want. Late marriage plays a role in this. As does the social structure that so often encourages it. Clancy and I kind of wanted three if we had any, but due to biology and age we’re likely two-and-done. In a social structure where getting married younger was a norm, that might be different. This is a cost of the post-collegiate progression and one that Patton’s advice – if widely accepted – might mitigate.

The other criticism of Patton’s piece is the (alleged) snobbery. From a personal standpoint, though, her suggestion is probably sound. People from Princeton don’t need to marry people who went to Princeton, but they’re probably going to want to marry people of a similar background more often than not (yes, even the men). People who went to college are generally going to be looking for the same thing, and people who went to ubercollege… ditto. Though on a personal or individual level, this is sound, it would potentially exacerbate class divides with assortive mating. Which means that it might not be as good a thing for society as a whole. What effect it would have, given that assortive mating is already occurring, is unclear.

Patton defends her original letter (and speech) here and here.


Category: Coffeehouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

7 Responses to Susan Patton vs The Post-Collegiate Progression

  1. says:

    I have to laugh at the photo you chose to accompany this post. Let’s just say those two lovebirds are more photogenic than most of the people I remember from my Ivy. Can’t recall any reports of hanky panky in the stacks there, either.

    As for the substance of Patton’s letter, of course she’s right. People don’t like to hear painful truths. I’m a guy, and arguably the same advice could apply to people like me as well. It has been damned hard to meet people since college, and now I’m aging and in a locale not known for its educated populace or promising career opportunities to draw people to the area. It’s doubtful that I will ever meet anyone suitable to marry. The only good aspect of the situation is that it prevents me from being financially constrained by a family when I face physician reimbursement cuts and technological change in health care. So maybe I’ll be able to retire to a tiny apartment alone one day instead of to a cardboard box.

  2. trumwill says:

    Well, I suppose that’s one bright side. I really feel bad for the situation you are in. Family medicine has its problems, but inability to find family-supporting work isn’t (yet) one of them.

    • says:

      At my current income, I could support a family if I had one, but there wouldn’t be much left over to save. After additional rounds of cuts, of course, the situation will be worse.

      Technology hasn’t replaced my kind yet, but I really worry. I’m around your age, maybe a year or two older or younger, so I need at least 30 years of employment (more if I want to reach Social Security benefits eligibility, as if Social Security will still be around). I’m not sure that’s going to work out, but I don’t know how to handle it. In a way, an M.D. is an even worse resume curse than a J.D. It has no relevance at all to most business, and lay people don’t understand how medical training works. They just think that all doctors are “rich” and assume that a doctor will leave the crappy job he’s applying for when something better in medicine opens up. But in reality, if the specialty one trained in goes bust, one has no options other than doing another residency or abandoning the practice of medicine. Doing another residency is a miserable ordeal in middle age, and it’s not always possible to land the residency slot. Hospitals receive tens of thousands of dollars less in annual funding for people who have already completed a residency than they do for applicants just out of school. I can’t imagine that situation will improve when the government is planning across the board cuts to GME funding. But in some ways, I’m one of the lucky ones in that at least I have a job now. There are a lot of people in my specialty who are unemployed or underemployed.

      • trumwill says:

        When deciding to get out of strict family medicine, one of the things a couple of us thought about was trying to convince Clancy is to become an obstetrician. She’s already delivered more babies and performed more c-sections than the average graduating resident. How much could they go back and make her take?

        Three years, it would appear.

        • says:

          Ouch! That sounds about right for OB. At most she would get credit for the internship year, that is if she could find a program with an open second-year spot. Otherwise, she could be forced to repeat even the first year as some OB programs integrate the internship year into the rest of the program. I doubt she would find that palatable.

  3. SFG says:

    Where did you meet Julie, Evangeline, and Clancy? If you’re willing to discuss it…

    • trumwill says:

      Julie was through a job I got through someone I met online. Clancy was through a friend I initially met online. Eva is the closest to an “Internet match.” It was on a pre-Facebook site that wasn’t expressly for making matches, though was often used for that. (Neither Eva nor I would have been on the site if it were a matchmaking site, as we both had significant others at the time.)

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