U.S. Women Delay Marriage and Children for College

(January 2011) Being a college student often means living at a subsistence-level income and suspending some big life decisions and events—like getting married and having children. But while women may delay marriage and children to pursue a degree, women with at least a bachelor’s degree are actually more likely to get married than women with less education and are more likely to wait until marriage to start a family. In 2008, a woman with a graduate or professional degree had an average of 1.6 children and a woman with a bachelor’s degree had 1.7 children, compared with a 2.0-child average for high school graduates and 2.5 average for women who never completed high school (see table).

Women Ages 40 to 44 by Education, 2008

Number of Children
Ever Born
Less Than High School 2.5
High School Graduate 2.0
Some College 1.9
Bachelors’ Degree 1.7
Graduate or Professional Degree 1.6

Source: Janet Lawler Dye, “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” Current Population Reports P20-563 (2010), accessed at, on Nov. 17, 2010.

College Graduates More Likely to Marry

Young Americans are less likely to get married than previous generations, but recent analyses by PRB found that marriage rates have remained fairly constant for college graduates since the early 1990s, while they declined steeply for those with a high school degree or less.1 Because the level of education is directly related to income, the education gap in marriage also signifies a growing income gap in marriage. But the gap may not mean less-educated and lower-income Americans never want to get married. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that “those in this less-advantaged group are as likely as others to want to marry, but they place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage.”2 A study from the University of Virginia also documented an education gap in marriage. This study suggested that marriage is getting stronger among the more educated and affluent, while less-educated and less-affluent Americans appear to be losing faith in the institution.3

College-educated women are more likely than less-educated women to be married when they have a child. The proportion of children born to unmarried women has soared in the United States since the 1970s, similar to trends in many European countries. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the percentage of U.S. births born to an unmarried mother rose from 11 percent to 41 percent between 1970 and 2009.4 Childbearing outside marriage has increased among most socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, but there is a distinct gap by education. In 2008, nearly 82 percent of female college graduates under age 30 were married and living with their spouse at the birth of their child (see figure). At the other extreme, young mothers with less than a high school education are least likely to be married: Just 30 percent of young mothers without a high school diploma were married when their babies were born.5

Living With a Partner More Common

As marriage has been delayed and sometimes rejected altogether by young Americans, cohabitation has increased. An increasing number of cohabitating couples are having children, and today, it’s estimated that up to half of all nonmarital births are to parents in cohabiting unions.6 Although children appear to benefit financially and socially from having both parents—even if they are not married—unmarried couples are more likely to separate than married couples.

Because they have higher marriage rates, it is no surprise that college graduates are less likely to be living with a partner when they have a child than women with less education. In 2008, just 6 percent of young mothers with a college degree were cohabiting when they had their baby. In contrast, about 21 percent of young mothers with a high school education, and 14 percent of those with some college, were unmarried but living a partner when they gave birth (see figure).

Women Who Had A Child in the Last Year, by Education, 2008

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, June 2008.

Education Gap Growing?

Some analysts see a growing marriage gap among more- and less-educated Americans, corresponding to growing inequalities in income.7 The rise in women’s earnings relative to men, especially for less-educated groups, may also be a contributing factor.8 There are similar educational differences in fertility rates and the proportion of births outside of marriage. Because marriage and family have been in transition, it is possible the gap will narrow, whether because college graduates also move away from marriage or because less-educated Americans return to marriage. For now, the women who put off marriage for education and careers, and delay childbearing until marriage, are still embracing the traditional family consisting of two married parents bringing up their children.

Mary Mederios Kent is senior demographic writer at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Mark Mather and Diana Lavery, “In U.S., Proportion Married at Lowest Recorded Levels” (September 2010), accessed on Jan. 11, 2011.
  2. Paul Taylor, The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2010), accessed at, on Dec. 15, 2010.
  3. W. Bradford Wilcox, The State of Our Unions, Marriage in American 2010–When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2010), accessed at, on Dec. 15, 2010.
  4. National Center for Health Statistics, “Health, United States 2009 Web Update (2010): table 9”, accessed at, on Nov. 23, 2010; and Brady E. Hamilton, Joyce A. Martin, and Stephanie J. Ventura, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2009,” National Vital Statistics Reports 59, no. 3 (2010), accessed at, on Dec. 22, 2010.
  5. Janet Lawler Dye, “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” Current Population Reports P20-563 (2010), accessed at, on Nov. 17, 2010.
  6. Mather and Lavery, “In U.S., Proportion Married at Lowest Recorded Levels.”
  7. Taylor, The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families.
  8. Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).