A man and woman kiss outside of the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York.
A couple embraces outside the Goldman Sachs Group global headquarters in Manhattan. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

It’s not just singles who have flocked back to the city: College-educated married couples are much more likely to live in big cities with high human capital.

In the popular imagination, cities are for young, educated single people, who flock there after college seeking fun, other singles, and more abundant job opportunities. There’s even a term for this back-to-the-city movement: “youthification.” Once the singles are married off and kids enter the picture, the popular narrative goes, their priorities change, and these same folks head out to the suburbs for more space, bigger back yards, and better schools.

But in fact, “power couples” are a big factor in the back-to-the-city movement as well. The phrase brings to mind celebrity couples like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Kim and Kanye, and J-Lo and A-Rod (or some other pair bestowed with a funny moniker). Among researchers, “power couples” refers to a broader phenomenon of well-educated, high-earning pairs, typically defined as couples where both partners hold a college degree. Power couples are associated with the concept of assortative mating, which describes how people of similar backgrounds—and especially those who are better educated and higher-earning—tend to partner with and marry one another.

The urban preference of power couples is not a new phenomenon. A pioneering study of the locational proclivities of power couples, by the academic power couple of Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn, tracked their geography over the 50-year period spanning 1940 and 1990—before the big acceleration in the back-to-the-city trend after the year 2000. It found that power couples increasingly chose to locate in larger cities and large metro areas (those with 2 million or more people). The share of power couples living in large metros rose from a third in 1940 to nearly half (48 percent) by 1990.

A new study brings the numbers up to date, tracking the location of power couples from 2008 to 2014, when the back-to-the-city movement kicked into high gear. The study sheds important new light on the geography of power couples by comparing three kinds of couples: full power couples, in which both spouses have a college degree; couples where only one spouse has a college degree; and couples where neither spouse has a college degree. (The study looks at native-born, male–female married couples only.) Costa and Kahn used even more detailed data on these couples from the Census’s American Community Survey (ACS), covering more than 300 metros for the period 2008 to 2014.

Not surprisingly, full power couples are significantly more likely to live in large, highly educated cities or metro areas than other types of couples. More than 40 percent (42 percent) of these couples are found in large cities, compared to about 30 percent of couples where just the husband (32 percent) or just the wife (31 percent) graduated from college. Only a quarter of couples where neither spouse graduated college lived in large, highly educated cities.

On the flip side, just 2 percent of full power couples lived in the smallest, least-educated cities or metro areas—reflective of the increased geographic sorting and inequality we see across America. (The study measures human capital in cities as the percentage of college graduates.)

Share of Full Power Couples by Cities’ Human Capital and Size

High human capital Medium human capital Low human capital
Large cities 42% 7% 0%
Medium cities 15% 16% 4%
Small cities 4% 2% 2%
Rural 0% 1% 8%

This same general pattern holds for couples that move from one city to another. Roughly a third (32 percent) of full power couples that relocated between 2008 and 2014 moved to the largest and most highly educated metros, compared to about a quarter of husband-only and wife-only power couples, and less than a fifth of couples where neither partner graduated from college. Just 2 percent of full power couples moved to the smallest, least educated places in America.

Share of Full-Power-Couple Movers by Cities’ Human Capital and Size

High Human Capital Medium Human Capital Low Human Capital
Large Cities 32% 7% 0%
Medium Cities 18% 17% 4%
Small Cities 5% 3% 2%
Rural 0% 1% 10%

Furthermore, the study finds consistent evidence that both men and women in full power couples are financially better off in large, educated cities, which offer better jobs and higher wages for them.

But what happens to couples in which just the husband or just the wife has a college degree?

The study finds considerable evidence of a distinct gender bias in how different types of couples fare in large cities. Full power couples do better in larger, more educated cities. Power couples where just the husband has a college degree also are better off in larger, more educated cities.

But the pattern is different when only the wife has a degree—they are not necessarily better off in those cities. Furthermore, when the woman has the degree, its effect on them moving to a large city rather than a small one is not large enough for researchers to conclude it isn’t due to random chance.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. Perhaps it is, as the study conjectures, that larger, more educated cities offer fewer opportunities for less educated men. Or perhaps it is due to the well-documented gender gap in wages for knowledge-based and professional jobs, and the women in some power couples do not earn enough to make it worthwhile to live in bigger, more expensive cities.

It could be that women who choose less educated male partners do so in part because they have different locational preferences than women who marry college-educated men. They may prefer small-town life to big-city living, or want to stay close to family. Or, despite the belief that there is less of a gender-based division of labor among college-educated couples, perhaps it is still the case that a non-trivial number of college-educated women take their locational cues from the male partner’s career.

But any way you slice it, when it comes to the geography of power couples, gender continues to matter.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance for this article.

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