Family Matters

Less-Educated Women Have More Children. Or Is It the Other Way Around?

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It makes sense that education would impede childbearing. In nearly every country, women with more education tend to have fewer children than less-educated mothers. But new research suggests it may actually work the other way around: having more children hamstrings women’s education.

The research, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was led by Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and Columbia University, who’s spent decades researching the people who call Earth home. Cohen decided to undertake his latest research after realizing, at a 2009 conference convened by the United Nations, that it appeared no one had yet investigated the obvious question about education and fertility: do more educated women have fewer kids because they’re educated or because having children prevented them from going on to get more education.

That kind of data, which allows researchers to make chicken-or-egg inferences, is not tracked in the U.S., although plenty of people — particularly policymakers — would likely take interest.

The case for education influencing fertility is strong. After all, more educated women have children with better survival rates, and they have their children later in life. “There are a lot of people who think it’s education that interferes with fertility. For example, more educated people are better at using contraception, or more educated people want to have educated children and they realize that to have children of high quality is more difficult with many children than with fewer children,” says Cohen.

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But a large analysis of Norwegian data would suggest otherwise. Tipped off by a fellow demographer at the U.N. meeting that Norway maintains a registry tracking women’s fertility and educational history, Cohen explored data on 26,349 women born in Norway in 1964 who stayed in the country from age 17 to age 39. Cohen and researchers from the University of Oslo were able to determine, year by year, how being enrolled in school influenced a woman’s probability of having a child and proceeding to the next level of education.

They found that women who had children early — by their mid-20s — were much less likely to continue their education beyond the required first two years of high school; they were also less likely to achieve a higher degree later in life than women who delayed childbearing until they finished their education.

So is it education that inhibits fertility, or vice versa? “It seems to be fertility that gets in the way of education,” says Cohen. “If the opposite were true, we would not have seen that the women who put off childbearing had so much more education than the women who bore children early.”

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Assuming other studies confirm Cohen’s findings, it might behoove governments to let young women know of the potential chilling effect of childbearing. “Young women should be informed of the likely difficulty of pursuing their education if they have children early,” says Cohen.

The study’s findings also underscore the need for affordable child care — and for contraception, considering that half of U.S. pregnancies are unintended. “That represents a huge social cost to the mothers and to society,” says Cohen.