Tying the knot in college

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Cami and Chris Ortega are part of the 25 percent of married students at BYU. (Photo courtesy of Cami Ortega)
Cami and Chris Ortega are part of the 25 percent of married students at BYU. (Photo courtesy of Cami Ortega)

Chris and Cami Ortega knew they would be spending the first part of their marriage finishing up their degrees.

Chris, a senior from Hercules, Calif., studying electrical engineering, had a year of classes left, and Cami, a senior from Idaho Falls, knew she had at least a year and a half before completing her degree in genetics. But the time they had left in school didn’t bother them.

“My dad made Chris promise that he would make it his first priority to get me through school,” Cami said. “That mattered a lot to my family. But I didn’t ever really feel like I wasn’t going to do that, and I know that I really wanted it.”

The Ortegas have now been married more than six months and have each completed one full semester and two terms. Cami has changed her major to bioinformatics, which will delay her expected graduation date, and is also considering graduate school. Still, the two remain calm about being married and in college.

The Ortegas aren’t alone. In the fall of 2012, BYU had more than 8,000 married students — a full 25 percent of the student population. And that rate hasn’t fluctuated more than a few percentage points for the last 30 years.

But BYU seems to be an anomaly. Over that same 30 years, the average age for marriage in the U.S. has steadily climbed into what one report calls “entirely new demographic territory.”

According to “The Knot Yet Report,” which explores the causes and consequences of delayed marriage in America, the average age for marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, an age that has increased four and three years, respectively, over the last century.

In addition to the age increase, the percentage of unmarried adults in their twenties has also significantly increased.

In 1970, over 60 percent of women and almost 50 percent of men aged 20–24 had married. Additionally, 90 percent of women and 80 percent of men aged 25–29 had married. By 2010, those numbers had plummeted. Twenty percent of women and slightly more than 10 percent of men aged 20–24 were married, with only 50 percent of women and less than 40 percent of men aged 25–29 were married, the report said.

The rise in marriage age means that more and more college students are not married.

According to Brian Willoughby, assistant professor in the department of family life at BYU and co-author of “The Knot Yet Report,” people generally fear that getting married will force them to drop out of college.

“There’s this cultural notion that it’s going to stop them,” said Willoughby. “They’re going to have to drop out of school. It’s going to be bad. Maybe they should wait until they’re out of college to do it.”

“The Knot Yet Report” also explains that marriage has transformed from a foundation of adulthood to the crowning achievement.

“Ninety-one percent of young adults believe that they must be completely financially independent to be ready for marriage, and over 90 percent of them believe they should finish their education before taking the big step. Fifty-one percent also believe that their career should be underway first. In fact, almost half say that it is ‘very important’ to work full-time for a year or two prior to getting married. Some go further: 33 percent report they ought to be able to pay for their own wedding. Just short of a quarter even believe they should have purchased a home before tying the knot,” the report said.

Still, college students get married. Data for the marriage rate at many universities are not readily available, but some Utah schools have marriage rates similar to the rate at BYU. Twenty-two percent of students are married at Southern Utah University, and 25 percents are married at Dixie State University.

When Mackenzie Whitaker got married, she and her new husband, Adam, each had at least a year of school left. (Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Whitaker)
When Mackenzie Whitaker got married, she and her new husband, Adam, each had at least a year of school left. (Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Whitaker)

Mackenzie Whitaker, a junior from Salt Lake City studying elementary education at Utah State University, got married in November 2012 and will be part of the nearly 50 percent of married students in USU’s graduating class each year.

Despite national trends and opinions, she said being married has made her a better student.

“Before marriage I skipped my morning classes and slept in a little bit more often,” she said. “I go to my classes more. I definitely find more time to study and do homework.”

Ricky Derrick, a junior in the pre-nursing program at the University of Utah also said he took school more seriously once he got married.

“College became more real. Instead of just being what you did after high school, it became my tuition, my apartment, my responsibility,” he said. “I was getting C’s and C+’s, but now I’m getting B’s and B+’s.

But being a married student doesn’t make everything easier.

“The hardest part of being married is being poor,” Derrick said.

He then explained that with both he and his spouse going to school full time, they were only able to work part-time, so money was tight.

Whitaker also said figuring out how to pay for two people to go to school is difficult.

Both students said getting married has made it easier for them to receive financial aid for school. And according to the 2011–2012 Federal Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Report, this is probably true.

The financial aid eligibility formula puts significant weight on a number called the expected family contribution. Students who are unmarried and under 24 are typically considered financially dependent and the expected family contribution is based on their parents’ income.

When students get married, however, they become financially independent by the Pell Grant definition, and their parents’ income is taken out of the equation, often resulting in a lower expected family contribution and a higher Pell Grant eligibility.

In fact, 87 percent of independent students were eligible for financial aid during the 2011–2012 school year, compared to only 70 percent of financially dependent applicants. If independent students have children, the eligibility increases to 92 percent.

There is more good news for married college students too. “The Knot Yet Report” also suggests that marriage in the early 20s isn’t as problematic as a lot of people think it is.

Jason Carroll, an associate professor in the department of family life who also worked on “The Knot Yet Report,” said in an email that “the greatest indicated likelihood of being in an ‘intact marriage of the highest quality’ is among those who married between the ages of 22 to 25.”

Carroll further explained that students don’t necessarily gain anything by delaying marriage until their later-twenties, and “scholars have also begun to note that marriage during the early to mid-20s may represent an optimal window for the transition to marriage.”

For students like Chris Ortega, this isn’t surprising.

“We are not in our careers, and we don’t have so many of these things established that people think you need to have to get married,”Ortega said. “We’re learning to live our lives the way we will for the rest of our lives — together.”