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(Soundbite of song, Love & Marriage)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together a horse and carriage. This...

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Frank Sinatra sang that marriage was an institute you can't disparage. Decades ago, most Americans didn't. They got married and stayed marriage. Now the institute is becoming less common, especially among those with only a high school diploma. NPR's Jennifer Ludden explains.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Andrew Felices and Mellissa Giles are the picture of family life.

Mr. ANDREW FELICES: Hey, What's this?

AJ: My choo choo.

Mr. FELICES: Is that your choo choo train?

AJ: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Their son AJ is two and a half. They bought this cozy condo in Frederick, Maryland, last year. But, well, they're not actually married.

Ms. MELLISSA GILES: We're still young. We're enjoying the time as it is.

Mr. FELICES: Having your life the way you want it, your lifestyle in place, getting married is really the cherry on top.

LUDDEN: Andrew and Mellissa are part of a huge shift, according to a new study by the National Marriage Project. It finds that 44 percent of people who graduated from high school but not college have children outside marriage. That's more than triple what it was in the 1970's, and we're not talking teen mothers. Like many, Andrew and Mellissa are in their mid-20's, and welcomed a child. But marriage?

Ms. GILES: A lot of people I think see marriage as a piece of paper. A piece of paper that costs a lot of money to change - a divorce.

LUDDEN: Like many children of the '80s, Mellissa's parents split when she was young. She's wary, and she knows this: A big factor in divorce can be money problems. She and Andrew have decent, full-time jobs, but there's not much wiggle room.

Mr. FELICES: For me, it feels unsafe heading into a marriage where two people, you know, rely on each other to go into it unprepared. You know, in my family, my mother never worked and my dad's income was always very sufficient to support our family. I'd like to model that in my life.

LUDDEN: The trouble is that's become a lot harder to do without a college degree. Time was a man could go from high school to a well-paying, secure factory job. No more.

And Brad Wilcox, who heads the National Marriage Project, says for three decades men - especially have seen their wages stagnate.

Dr. BRAD WILCOX (Director, National Marriage Project): And that makes them less attractive, both in their eyes and in the eyes of their partners, as husbands. Both in terms of thinking about getting married, but also in terms of staying married.

LUDDEN: Wilcox's study finds divorce up among the working class, even as it's fallen for the college-educated. The recession, he says, has only exacerbated the problem, hitting lower wage jobs hardest.

Culturally, it's certainly much more acceptable to have children without being wed. But there's still an argument for marriage. Wilcox says unwed parents are more than twice as likely to break up by the time their child is five.

Since the 1960's, he notes, there's been concern about the breakdown of family among the poor and African-Americans.

Dr. WILCOX: What's happened now is that retreat from marriage has moved up the social ladder into the heart of American life, into middle America.

LUDDEN: So Wilcox worries: Could marriage become a privilege only for an educated elite? But wait a minute. If financial concerns are keeping people from getting married, the logic doesn't hold. Isn't a child more expensive than a spouse?

I put this to Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and author of "The Marriage-Go-Round."

Dr. ANDREW CHERLIN (Sociologist-Author, "The Marriage-Go-Round"): A child is more expensive. What I think is happening, is that a lot of young adults these days think that having a kid is absolutely necessary, and something you don't put off until someday in the future when you might be able to marry.

LUDDEN: But Cherlin says young adults do want to marry.

Ms. MELISSA ETHRIDGE: I want to have that beautiful gown and all the family, and toasts with champagne, and things like that.

LUDDEN: Melissa Ethridge was engaged when she became pregnant. But a wedding fell by the wayside, as she and her boyfriend dropped out of college, moved to be near family in Austin, and were overwhelmed with the costs of raising a child. Their son is now four and they're separating.

She says people would ask, why didn't they just get a marriage license at the courthouse.

Ms. ETHRIDGE: I would regret like not having a photo album to show my son. And besides that we were going to spend our lives together, and having that beautiful photo album. But it may have made a difference, as far as us staying together, I'm not sure.

LUDDEN: As for the couple we met at the beginning of this story, Andrew and Mellissa in Maryland, they've decided a college degree is a must. They'll have to squeeze in classes around work. Andrew hopes to get a promotion with tuition reimbursement. Perhaps then, they say, with degrees in hand, it will be the right time to marry.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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