Computerised romance surveys to show students their single most compatible person on campus are quickly gaining popularity in the US, easing pandemic isolation and anxiety while potentially reinforcing the inequities of elite higher education.
The phenomenon, known as Marriage Pact, began as a classroom project at Stanford University in 2017 and has since reached more than 65 campuses nationwide, mostly in the past year. They now include most of the Ivy League and an assortment of other top-ranked institutions.
Students at 2,500 other universities – most of US higher education – have taken steps towards joining, overwhelming the organisation’s intake capacity, said Marriage Pact co-founder Liam McGregor. Overseas interest, he said, has come from places that include Mexico, the UK, France, Italy and Singapore.
And where it’s been implemented, it’s been enthusiastically embraced, often with majorities of entire undergraduate populations answering the dozens of questions crafted for their particular campus.
The idea is a version of various online dating services, with the key distinction of providing just a once-a-year survey-driven recommendation of the single best fit for each participant within their campus enrolment.
The accompanying pitch is that students – especially at the nation’s most competitive institutions – are too busy during their four years of academic studies to seriously assess potential romantic partners and yet will never again live in such an ideal environment to find them.
“Let’s just put it out there: college is the best place to find The One,” the Marriage Pact says in its promotional material. “And you won’t be here forever.”
The Marriage Pact slogan refers to the idea that young people – such as in an episode of the popular 1990s-era television series Friends – should have in mind a person to marry if they otherwise haven’t found someone by about the age of 40.
The Marriage Pact and outside experts attribute the programme’s popularity to factors – beyond the technological capacity to do it – that include women increasingly feeling harassed in dating environments; shifts in gender identities that complicate in-person encounters; and the social isolation and anxieties of the Covid and Trump eras.
Yet one broad expectation of the project is the even greater likelihood of people staying within their own educational and societal divisions. Even before the Marriage Pact arrived, a 2013 study by Facebook found US college graduates marrying at older ages but still ending up with people from their own educational background – 28 per cent of married graduates using the social platform attended the same college as their spouse, and 15 per cent attended the same high school.
“Decades ago, it was more common to have people marry with less similar incomes and educational goals,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has studied college-marriage associations. “But assortative mating – driven in part by social pressure – has likely reinforced income inequality.”
Mr McGregor, a 2020 Stanford graduate, developed the Marriage Pact concept with a classmate, Sophia Angus-Sterling, a 2019 graduate. They hoped that year to collect 200 student responses for their real-world market design final project, and were quickly overwhelmed by 4,000.
Mr McGregor took a job as a data scientist at Microsoft after graduation, before returning to the Marriage Pact to try running it as a business. He admitted uncertainties about how the initiative might make money, as well as over questions of its social implications.
In an interview, Mr McGregor expressed confidence that the Marriage Pact would counter homophily – the tendency of people to seek romantic partners who seem similar by most outward measures – because its long list of questions aims to identify values rather than just compile current interests.
“Marriage Pact combats homophily by letting you look deeper down rather than at surface-level commonalities,” Mr McGregor said. But he acknowledged not having any evidence that the bottom-line result wouldn’t simply end up reinforcing connections between people of comparable educational and societal backgrounds.
Galit Atlas, a clinical assistant professor of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at New York University, said she saw the Marriage Pact quite clearly pushing people towards the familiar, especially at a time of great social upheaval and uncertainty.
The list of participating Marriage Pact institutions so far is heavily weighted toward selective universities, and Dr Atlas said she expected that would be the case. “The reason is that most people are drawn to the idea that once they get into an elite school, they will have a safe path,” she said. “The Marriage Pact provides another reassurance that they are secure.”
Mr McGregor said he couldn’t readily explain his method of picking among the 2,500 institutions applying to join. “That’s a great question,” he said, before adding: “The amount of interest, the fit for the school – for example, if we’ve done similar schools.”