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Six-hundred-twenty university students completed an anonymous confidential questionnaire designed to identify characteristics of college students who cohabit. While 15 percent of the sample are or have lived together, 86 percent were open to doing so. Cohabitants who were more likely to live together were juniors/seniors, had hedonistic sexual values, and had dated interracially. University faculty, counselors, and students might be aware that living together is an option for most students but that older, hedonistic, racially tolerant individuals are most likely to cohabit

But I let her do some of my laundry and she slipped a few meals in between and the next thing I remember, she was all moved in, and I was buying her a washing machine are the lyrics to Ready or Not, an old Jackson Browne hit. His words reflect the subtle move of a couple's relationship from casual dating to living together. Also known as cohabitation, living together in this article is defined as two unrelated adults of the opposite sex living in the same residence who share an emotional/sexual relationship.

Cohabitation has become a stage in courtship for many couples. In a random sample of 947 individuals, 60 percent of couples who had been married five years or less reported that they had cohabited before marriage (Stanley and Markman, 1997). This study was designed to identify characteristics of today's college students who reported that they had lived together.


Six-hundred and twenty never married undergraduates from five first year level sociology courses at East Carolina University voluntarily completed an anonymous questionnaire designed to identify the characteristics of college students who live together. Among the respondents, 63% were women; 37% were men. Eighty-percent of those surveyed were first year students and sophomores; twenty percent were juniors and seniors. The median age was 19. Respondents were predominately white (87%) and African-American (8.5%) with 1% Hispanic and 3.6% "other". Almost half (48.3%) of the respondents were involved in a reciprocal love relationship. Ten months was the median number of months they had been involved with their current partner.

Students were asked specifically about their cohabitation history. Item 22 on the 24-item questionnaire was "I have lived with someone I was not married to." Respondents were asked to respond on a continuum-"Strongly Agree", "Agree", "Disagree", and "Strongly Disagree"." Neither agree nor disagree" was also an option. Responses to "Strongly Agree" and "Agree" were combined as were responses to "Strongly Disagree" and "Disagree". Questionnaires where the respondent checked "neither agree nor disagree" were eliminated from the analysis. Of the 568 questionnaires analyzed, fifteen percent of the respondents (18% men; 13% women) reported that they had lived with someone. A profile of those who were currently living together or who had done so in the past emerged.

Findings and Discussion

There were no significant differences in the percentage of men and women who reported having lived together. Similarly, there were no significant differences in the percentage of respondents who identified themselves as white, black, Hispanic, or "other" with regard to current or previous living together experiences. However, three factors were statistically significant with regard to those who had lived together compared to those who had not.

1. Older. The older the student, the more likely the student reported having cohabited. Students who were 20 and older (juniors and seniors) were significantly (p [is less than] .0000) more likely to have lived together than students who were 18 or 19 (first year students and sophomores). One explanation for a relatively low percentage of respondents reporting that they had lived together is that 80 percent were first year students and sophomores. Previous research has revealed that the older the individual, the more likely that individual is to have cohabited. By age 30, almost half of adults in the U.S. report that they have lived with someone (Noch, 1995). Similarly, 81% of all cohabitors in the U.S. are over age 25 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1998 Table 66). When students in the current study were asked if they "would" live with someone to whom they were not married, 86 percent reported that they would. Clearly, for most individuals, living together occurs in reference to opportunity and one's opportunity increases with age.

2. Hedonistic Sexual Values. Hedonism was defined as belief in the sexual value, "If it feels good, do it." Twenty-three percent of the respondents espousing a hedonistic sexual value system reported having lived together. This percentage was in contrast to 16% of students who were relativistic ("rightness or wrongness depends on the situation"). Only two percent of the students who were absolutist in their sexual values (moral codes dictate what is right or wrong) reported that they had lived together. Hedonism may also help to explain why 16% of the cohabitants in a national study reported having sex four times a day in contrast to 7% among noncohabitants (Michael et al., 1994, 16). Henze et al. (1974) also found among college students that those who cohabited reported lower church attendance and higher drug use than those who had not cohabited.

3. Interracial Dating Experience. Respondents who reported that they had dated someone of another race or that they would date interracially were significantly (p [is less than] .05) more likely to have lived together. Given that less than five percent of married couples consist of interracial couples (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1998, Table 67), interracial dating may reflect an individualistic philosophy. Such a philosophy may make it easier for someone to live together since they are less vulnerable to social pressure.

Analysis of the data provided by these college student cohabitants suggest the profile of an older, hedonistic, interracially tolerant student. Previous research has identified other characteristics of cohabitants as coming from a divorced family, having been married previously and having less than a high school education (Rodriguez, 1998). The current study adds to the existing literature by noting an association with age, sexual values and interracial tolerance.


This study provides university teachers and counselors with some data that most students in their midst are potential cohabitants (86% in the current sample) and that some have already lived together with someone to whom they were not married (15% of the current sample). Students who are older, hedonistic, and date interracially are particularly likely to have cohabited. The implication of this study for university students includes an awareness among them that their peers are likely to consider cohabitation as an option and that the older and more liberal the person, the higher the chance of cohabitation. Indeed, given the opportunity to do so, traditional patterns of dating have given way to increased exposure to each other including cohabitation.


Henze, L. F. and J. W. Hudson. (1974) Personal and family characteristics of cohabiting and college students. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 36:722-727

Michael, R. T., J. H. Gagnon, E. O. Laumann, and G. Kolata. (1994) Sex in America: A definitive survey. Boston: Little, Brown.

Noch, S. L. (1995) A comparison of marriages and cohabitation relationships. Journal of Family Issues. 16:53-76

Rodriguez, Hilda (1998). Cohabitation: A Snapshot. Washington D.C.: Center for Law and Social Policy, Inc

Stanley, S. M. and H. J. Markman (1997). Marriage in the 90s: A Nationwide Random Phone Survey. Denver: PREP, Inc.

Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1998. 118th ed.(1998) Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census

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Publication:College Student Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999

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