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Essays in Labor Economics on Marriage, Education, and Labor Supply


This dissertation seeks to understand two main issues. The first issue concerns changes in the gender gaps in college attendance and choice of majors between 1960 and 2010. The second main issue concerns changes in the marriage rate in the US since the early twentieth century.

The main objective of Chapters 1 and 2 is to answer the following two questions about educational choices: Why do women today invest in a college education at much higher rates than men, whereas fifty years ago men graduated more frequently? And given their high college attendance rates today, why do women continue to select disproportionately into lower-paying majors, with almost no gender convergence along this margin since the mid-1980s? In Chapter 1, I document first that changes in returns to skill over time and gender differences in wage premiums across majors cannot explain the observed gender gaps in educational choices. I then provide reduced-form evidence that two factors help explain the observed gender gaps: first, college degrees provide insurance against very low income for women, especially in case of divorce; second, majors differ substantially in the degree of "work-family flexibility" they offer, such as the size of wage penalties for temporary reductions in labor supply.

Based on this reduced-form evidence, in Chapter 2 I construct and estimate a dynamic structural model of marriage, educational choices, and lifetime labor supply. I use the model to analyze the contribution of changes in wages and changes in the marriage market to the observed educational investment patterns over time. I estimate that the insurance value of the college degree for women in case of divorce is equivalent to about 31\% of the college wage premium. I also estimate that the share of women choosing high-return science and business majors would increase from 34\% to 45\% if wage penalties for labor supply reductions were equalized across occupations. Finally, I test the effects of two sets of policies on individuals' choice of major: a differential tuition policy that charges less for science and technical majors, as has been proposed in some states; and interventions intended to improve work-family flexibility. My results show that some family-friendly policies increase the share of women in science and business majors substantially, while others further widen both college gender gaps.

Chapter 3, joint work with Maurizio Mazzocco, analyzes changes in U.S. marriage rates over nearly a century. We propose an explanation for these changes in three stages. First, we show that changes in cohort size alone can account for around 50 to 70\% of the variation in marriage rates since the 1930s for both black and white populations. Specifically, increases in cohort size reduce marriage rates, whereas declines in cohort size have the opposite effect. Using plausibly exogenous variation in access to oral contraceptives, and consequently the number of births, across states we provide evidence that the relationship between changes in cohort size and changes in marriage rates is causal. Next, we develop a dynamic search model of the marriage market that qualitatively generates this observed relationship, and derive a testable implication about cohort size's effect on spouses' age differences. Finally, we estimate the model and investigate its consistency with the data. We fail to reject it using the derived implication, and find that it can quantitatively explain much of the observed variation in marriage rates.

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