Nearly a quarter of highly educated women in their mid-30s had their first babies outside marriage, according to new research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, found that nonmarital childbearing has increased significantly among women of all educational levels over the past quarter-century.

Yet the sharpest increase has been among women who hold a bachelor’s degree or more. About 24.5% of them ages 32 to 38 weren’t married when they had their first babies, according to surveys from 2017-2018. That is a sixfold increase from 1996, when the share was 4% for that group.

“A generation ago, the percentage of college-educated women having children outside of marriage was negligible.” said Prof. Cherlin. “It’s no longer a rare event.”

Prof. Cherlin arrived at his conclusions using demographic data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and the National Survey of Family Growth. Based on his research, he projects that among college-educated women currently in their 30s who will ever have a first child, 18% to 27% will be unmarried at the time of the birth.

Researchers say the shift stems from college-educated young adults having less economic security than previous generations, particularly because they have more student debt. Although college-educated Americans still have far more earning power than those with only a high-school education, Prof. Cherlin pointed to stagnation in the college wage premium as one possible reason for the change.

More couples are deciding to live together instead of marrying and there is growing acceptance of having children within such unions, he said. “We might be seeing a trend toward a more European pattern of childbirth and marriage in which young adults have a child before marrying,” he said, adding that many of these couples in the U.S. end up getting married later on.

Among women who have a first birth outside of marriage, women with at least a bachelor’s degree are more likely to be married at the time of their second birth than those without a bachelor’s degree, Prof. Cherlin found. The college-educated women also are more likely to have the same partner for both of their children.

The research shows that the less education a woman has, the more likely she is to have her first baby outside marriage. Among women ages 32 to 38, about six in 10 women with only a high-school diploma were unmarried at the time of their first baby. For those lacking a high-school diploma in that age range, the figure was 86.5%.

Jennifer Cruz, a New York City special education teacher with a master’s degree, was approaching age 30 when she decided she didn’t want to wait to get married to have a child. “When I realized I was attracting the wrong men, and I really just wanted a child, I said, ‘Why not separate the two things?’” she said. “I had all my life to find love, but I didn’t have all my life to have a child.”

Using a sperm donor, she conceived and gave birth to a baby boy shortly before her 30th birthday. Ms. Cruz, now 36 years old, eventually married and is now pregnant with her second child, although that marriage is in the process of dissolving, she said.

Ms. Cruz said she is grateful that she became a mother on her own terms. “I felt like I had the freedom to have my son,” she said.
Pregnant woman by Ken Hammond (USDA) is licensed under WikiMedia Commons
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