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College-Educated Women More Likely to Have First Child Outside of Marriage

College-educated women are much more likely than ever before to have a first child outside of marriage, a new Johns Hopkins University study finds. Women with degrees are also more likely to be married at the time of their second birth, suggesting a historic shift among the educated away from starting families with marriage to starting them with a baby. The findings by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin are published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The Sequence of Life Events May be Shifting

Cherlin believes that the place of marriage in the sequence of life events for emerging adulthood may be shifting among college graduates. He compared demographic data from three major surveys, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and the National Survey of Family Growth. The proportion of first births outside of marriage has increased at all educational levels, but the increase has been the greatest among women with college degrees. In 1996 only 4% of college-educated women in their 30s had their first babies while unmarried. Now that percentage has increased six-fold to 24.5%.

Why is This Happening

Cherlin theorizes that the numbers are higher than a generation ago because of financial issues. College graduates today are carrying more debt, and a degree doesn’t guarantee as much money as it did decades ago, which discourages them from marrying. He goes on to say that young adults postpone or forgo marriage until and unless they have attained certain economic markers such as home ownership or an income comparable to the married couples around them. Another reason that Cherlin points to is a cultural change. It is much more acceptable to have a baby in a cohabitating relationship, or even alone, than in the past. This change in the sequence of life events seems like it’s here to stay, Cherlin projects that 18% to 27% of college-educated women now in their 30s will follow this pattern.

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