Rising nonmarital first childbearing among college-educated women: Evidence from three national studies


Cherlin, Andrew J. (2021). Rising nonmarital first childbearing among college-educated women: Evidence from three national studies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. vol. 118 (37) , PMCID: PMC8449381


Until recently, one key way in which family formation in the United States was distinctive among college-educated young adults was their tendency to wait until after marriage to have a first birth. Even as nonmarital first childbearing became common among less-educated adults, levels among the college-educated remained very low. These levels now appear to be rising, according to data from three national surveys. The data suggest a change in the role of marriage in family formation among the college-educated population, although not necessarily a decline. Rather, the place of marriage in the sequence of life events that compose emerging adulthood may be shifting among college graduates: for a growing share, marriage may occur after a first birth rather than before.Levels of nonmarital first childbearing are assessed using recent administrations of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort; the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health; and the National Survey of Family Growth. Results confirm that the higher a woman’s educational attainment, the less likely she is to be unmarried at the time of her first birth. A comparison over time shows increases in nonmarital first childbearing at every educational level, with the largest percentage increase occurring among women with college degrees at the BA or BS level or higher. This article projects that 18 to 27% of college-educated women now in their thirties who have a first birth will be unmarried at the time. In addition, among all women who are unmarried at first birth, women with college degrees are more likely to be married at the time of their second birth, and, in a majority of cases, the other parent of the two children was the same person. A growing proportion of well-educated women, and their partners, may therefore be pursuing a family formation strategy that proceeds directly to a first birth, and then proceeds, at a later point, to marriage, followed by a second birth. Possible reasons for the increase in nonmarital first births among the college-educated include the stagnation of the college wage premium; the rise in student debt; decreasing selectivity; and the growing acceptability of childbearing within cohabiting unions, which have become a common setting for nonmarital childbearing, and among single parents.Programs and data files used for analyses of the NLSY97 (40), NLSY79 (41), and NSFG (43) studies are available through the Open Source Framework at https://osf.io/j9p7x. Output files from the analyses of Add Health (42) are also available at the same source. However, access to the data from Add Health, Wave 5, is restricted and requires a contract between the Carolina Population Center and an institution. It cannot therefore be provided on a public server. Interested analysts could apply for a restricted-access contract.





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Journal Article

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Cherlin, Andrew J.

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