When Anna Sendersky graduated from Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park four years ago, she was a teenager with her sights set on college and career.
The notion of getting married while she was in college never entered her young mind.
"Definitely not!" the University of Kansas senior said. "I didn't even plan on meeting anybody or dating."
Anna Nordling, now 22 and married to Burk Nordling since last May, could be called a trend-buster. The Nordlings are believers in an institution whose prominence, according to current figures, is falling like rice at a wedding.
"You can say, without question, that we are at a 50-year low when it comes to marriage rates," said Brad Wilcox, director of the University of Virginia-based Center for Marriage and Families. "Marriage is much less likely today to shape an individual's life course. Marriage has gotten weaker as an institution."
Numbers tell the tale:
* In 2010, the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau reported that 52 percent of adults were married in 2009, a drop of 10 percent since 2000 and the lowest percentage since the U.S. Census began keeping marriage data about 100 years ago.
* Cohabitation — couples living together — has skyrocketed. About 7.5 million opposite-sex couples were cohabitating in 2010, up from 6.7 million the year before. And 500,000 same-sex couples also report living together.
* Decade after decade, the median marital age rises. It is now about 28 for men and 26 for women, an all-time high and up from 26 and 24 in 1990.
Young and married
Yet, there are students like Amanda Coon, 22, and Hallie Mann, 21.
Coon met Kyle Schaffer, 27, 18 months ago. "We just got engaged about a month ago," Coon said.
Mann, a senior English major at the University of Kansas, is engaged and plans to wed her high school sweetheart, Darren Frazee, 21, on June 13, after they both graduate.
"A couple of my friends say: 'Seriously? You're seriously going to be married in six months?' " said Mann of Austin, Texas. "They look at me with this kind of weird stare."
To be sure, the notion of walking down the aisle at such a young age may sound familiar to a generation that includes couples like Eugene and Elaine Goldstein of Overland Park, who, in February 1951, were married at 19. Last week they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
"We went to high school together. ...We shared a locker," Elaine Goldstein, 79, said of her days at Paseo High School, class of 1948.
"In her words, we've been lockering ever since," her husband said with a laugh.
Scholars say the reasons marriage continues to fade are well established: greater sexual freedom, female financial independence, students flooding colleges, greater social acceptance of both divorce and unmarried couples living together, and skepticism among the children of divorce that marriages will work.
Some may argue that, in their early 20s, young couples are swayed more by romance than sense. Coon and others disagree. They said they were guided by a mix of reasons — love, certainly, but also the examples they have seen in their parents and a sense that marriage matters more than living together.
For some, religion and faith are involved; many also speak of making mature choices as well as having the feeling that life will just be better when shared with someone else.
"My parents met when they were 16 years old, and they have been married for over 30 years and they are still crazy in love," Coon said. "Other people see marriage as a kind of negative thing that holds you down; if you get married your life is over.
"I am at the point, and Kyle is at the point, where we don't want to do anything without each other. He is my best friend, and any adventure I am going to have I want him to be there with me."
Though young, the couples said they were not naive.
Some are well aware that, among couples who get divorced, the highest rate is for those who married when they were 20 to 24. Among divorced individuals, 37 percent of the women and 39 percent of the men were married in that age range. As age at marriage rises, the divorce rate drops.
Still, living together is even less secure. According to numbers gathered in 2002, there's a 20 percent probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce in the first five years. For cohabitation, it's 49 percent.
Within the first 10 years, there's a 33 percent chance a first marriage will end; for cohabitation, it's 62 percent.
Abdul Yahaya, now 26, became engaged while a civil engineering major at Kansas State University. He and Alicia Williams, now Alicia Yahaya, also 26, married six months after graduation.
Living together was never considered, they said. Both are devout in their Christian faith.
"I feel like living together is more like a roommate status," Yahaya said.
"When everything is combined, you really have to bond together. ... I mean, definitely, there was talk before we got engaged about how you're young and you need to explore life. But I think that, especially in these times, you need to explore life with a partner. Just the unsure state of the world right now, it is easier to go about it with someone who is truly committed."