First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes baby in the baby carriage.
While that childhood rhyme used to be true, college-educated women in the United States are now more likely than ever to have a first baby outside marriage. They're also more likely than other women to have a wedding ring by the time they have their second baby.
"It suggests a change in the way that college-educated young adults are living their family lives, and change in the place of marriage in young adults' family lives," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.
That doesn't mean that most women are doing it. But Cherlin projects that 18% to 27% of college-educated women now in their 30s will follow this pattern.
Yet, it does suggest a historic shift.
The reasons are varied. Many college-educated women who are having babies outside marriage live with their partners. It's far more culturally acceptable now to have a baby while cohabiting than it was 20 or 30 years ago, Cherlin said.
Plus, college students are piling up more debt than they used to and seeing fewer economic returns from their education. Some studies have shown that people are less likely to marry while shouldering a lot of student debt, Cherlin said.
"You have economic factors and cultural factors pointing in the same direction," he said. "If you don't feel you're as economically secure as you'd like to be and if having a child outside of marriage is more acceptable, you may do that. I think that's what may be happening."
For a study published Sept. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cherlin looked at nationwide survey data to see when U.S. women were having children.
While he found that first births outside marriage were greater among women of all education levels, the greatest increase was among women with college degrees.
The percentage of college-educated women who were unmarried when they had their first baby jumped sixfold between 1996 and 2016 -- to 24.5%.
The percentages were even higher among women with less education.
At least half of those with a high school diploma were unmarried when they gave birth for the first time, the study found -- as were a majority of women with no high school or equivalency diploma.
For women in their 30s who had their first birth outside marriage, those with college degrees are more likely to be married by the time their second baby is born. College-educated women are also more likely to have the same partner for both children.
"For some college-educated young adults, we may be seeing a new family sequence in which you have a first child and then afterwards you marry," Cherlin said. "My findings don't show that college-educated adults are turning away from marriage, necessarily, but at the very least, the place of marriage in your life may be changing."
Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., reviewed the findings.
"The estimates are in some ways not surprising to those of us who study these things but are also important," she said. "They're important because they suggest both continuity and change."
A difference in the non-marital birth rate still exists by education, but the share of unmarried college-educated women giving birth has increased considerably, Percheski said.
She said education positions women better in the labor market and in marriage.
"College-educated women are just in a much better position to get rewarding jobs that pay well and they're in a better position to bargain with partners and, if they want marriage before kids, to get that," Percheski said.
She noted that for the last few decades, college-educated women have had higher rates of marriage than less-educated women. It wasn't always the case.
More research is needed to understand why it's happening, Percheski said, but it's likely a combination of all of these factors.
Does it really matter? Cherlin thinks it's worth watching.
Until recently, single and cohabiting parents have had less-stable relationships with their partners, which could result in less stability for children, he said. On the other hand, it may not, Cherlin added.
"I'm not sure how much this is a social problem. I'm not finding it necessarily is, but since we care a lot about the stability of children's family lives, that's something we should watch," he said.
The Brookings Institution offers these thoughts on how cohabiting parents and married parents differ.
SOURCES: Andrew Cherlin, PhD, professor, public policy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Christine Percheski, PhD, associate professor, sociology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Sept. 6, 2021