Ivy-League Education Makes Moms More Likely to Stay Home

Businesswoman mother child working
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The moms who graduate from the nation's best universities are also among the least likely college grads to be working full-time—or at all—a new analysis of government data finds.

About 70 percent of married moms who attended top-tier universities such as Princeton and Harvard were employed in 2010, according the analysis.

That compares to about 80 percent of married moms who attended the nation's least competitive universities, said Joni Hersch, the law and economics professor at Vanderbilt University who prepared the data.

The married moms from the nation's best universities also tended to take more time out of the workforce than those who attended the least competitive universities, and to work fewer hours if they did work at all, she said. About 45 percent of the married moms from the best universities were working full-time, compared with about 57 percent of the married moms from the least selective universities.

Hersch's analysis looked at married women between ages 21 and 54 who also had children under age 18, and is based on the National Survey of College Graduates, which provides government data on around 77,000 college graduates.

"Every dimension showed lower labor market activity," Hersch said.

Hersch said she thinks the results are surprising in that women who attend the best universities in the country would seem to be the most coveted potential employees. That means that employers would presumably be more likely to accommodate their desire for work/life flexibility.

"The flexibility alone doesn't explain it," she said. "The elites are going to dominate the non-elites in terms of flexibility."

She thinks it's possible that the married moms who attended the most prestigious universities are more likely to work part-time, or not at all, in part because they can afford to do so.

That's because other research has shown that graduates from top schools are more likely to come from wealthy families and to marry men who also attend prestigious universities and come from similarly wealthy families. That could give them more financial flexibility to opt out.

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Still, she said there appears to be more to the decision than that.

"It's not all explained by the husband's income," she said.

The tendency for these highly educated moms to work part-time or not at all even extended to many who had also earned advanced business degrees. But the weak economy seems to have played a role in sending some of these moms back into the workforce.

Hersch found that just about 35 percent of the married moms with MBAs who went to the best universities were working full-time in 2003, but that had increased to 54 percent by 2010.

By contrast, about 66 percent of the moms with MBAs who attended the least selective universities were working full-time in 2003, but that fell to about 48 percent in 2010.

She said that implies that in a strong economy, married moms who graduated from the best universities can hold out for the job they want. And in a weak economy, they can likely beat out the women from less selective universities to land a job if they want it.

Other researchers also have found evidence that moms with MBAs who attended prestigious universities tend to be more likely to "opt out" than their peers who get other advanced degrees, such as medical doctors and lawyers.

Catherine Wolfram, an associate professor at the University of California's Haas School of Business who has studied this issue, said one problem may be that women who earn MBAs tend to be most qualified to work in business and finance. Unlike other fields such as medicine, she said it could be that women in business and finance find that there is little flexibility for going part-time or making other family accommodations.

"The work environment really matters," she said.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who also has studied these issues extensively, said it's always been true that many women will slow their careers when they have children. But she questioned whether that should be considered a problem when women have long lives to pursue both professional and personal goals.

"There isn't any change in opting out. Professional women, women who have advanced degrees—even women with BAs and nothing else—are having their kids a lot later," she said. "So, seeing women slow down a bit in their 30s may have been a surprise to some, but it's not a surprise to anyone on the ground."