College-educated women more likely than ever to have first baby before marriage

BALTIMORE, Md. — As long-standing societal gender stereotypes and traditions continue to become more and more antiquated with each passing year, a new study finds college-educated women are more likely than ever to give birth to their first child outside of wedlock. Interestingly, researchers from Johns Hopkins University also report that educated women are now more likely to marry before their second child arrives.

Study authors say these findings suggest a historic shift away from the usual tradition among more educated individuals of starting with marriage before having children.

“I project that among college-educated women currently in their thirties who will ever have a first child, 18% to 27% will be unmarried at the time of the birth,” says study leader Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at JHU, in a media release. “The place of marriage in the sequence of life events for emerging adulthood may be shifting among college graduates.”

The research team utilized demographic data collected by three major surveys for this research: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and the National Survey of Family Growth.

That data shows that more women of all educational levels are more likely to have their first child before marriage today than in years’ past. However, the biggest change in this regard is among women with college degrees.

A 21st century change among mothers

Researchers find the vast majority of women without a high school degree did not have a husband at the time of their first child’s birth. Additionally, women with a high school degree were less likely to be single during their first pregnancy than those with no high school degree. However, a notable portion of these mothers-to-be were indeed unmarried. For instance, researchers report at least half of the women in the surveys with a high school education were unmarried at the time of delivering their first child.

These findings show a fairly drastic shift away from prior trends. In 1996, only four percent of college-educated women over the age of 30 had their first babies while unmarried. Now, that percentage stands at 24.5 percent. It’s also worth noting that college-educated females are more likely than less-educated women to stay with the same partner for both their first and second child.

“For a growing number of college-educated young adults in the U.S, their family life courses will eventually result in marriage but, for increasing numbers, marriage would follow a first birth rather than precede it,” Cherlin explains. “This suggests a potential change in the role of marriage among college-educated emerging adults – although not necessarily a decline.”

So what’s the cause behind this shift?

Cherlin theorizes that financial issues play a major role. More specifically, college debt and the increasingly undeniable fact that a Bachelor’s Degree just doesn’t guarantee as much money as it did decades ago. Besides all that, researchers believe the overall cultural shift toward greater acceptance of single parenthood and unmarried couples living together is likely a piece of this equation as well.

“Young adults may 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,” Cherlin concludes.

The study appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.