Conventional wisdom – and a large demographic literature – on fertility rates tells us that more education is associated with lower fertility. (See Hazan and Zoaby 2011 on this site for a recent exception.) Skirbekk (2008) provides a meta-study on the correlation of social status, wealth, and education with fertility. While in previous centuries higher social status was positively correlated with the number of children, this relation shifted to a negative or neutral one in the last century, in particular when simple correlations between education and fertility are used.
Potential changes in fertility behaviour are one of many consequences of the expansion of education all over the world in recent decades. While labour economists have investigated in detail financial returns to education, other ramifications of increased education are less explored. Oreopoulos and Salvanes (2011) discuss non-pecuniary returns to schooling inside and outside the labour market in fields like health, family, trust, crime, and political participation. Effects of education on fertility and generally on behaviour or resources of the offspring are very interesting because these effects shape future societies for years to come.
These measured negative correlations between education and fertility do not necessarily imply a causal relationship running from education to fertility, though; they may instead be due to reverse causation or third-factor problems. Early pregnancies might impede further education or school drop-outs might have a personality prone to early motherhood.
Cutting through this statistical thicket is not simple; it would require a historical situation where individuals were randomly assigned to different levels of schooling. Comparing fertility outcomes for these different groups would allow us to draw conclusions about a causal effect. In recent years several studies tried to do just this – using changes in compulsory schooling laws in several countries. Repeatedly over time, governments have increased the minimum number of years of schooling for individuals. In a recent paper (Fort et al 2011) we report results using data for more than 6000 elderly people from eight European countries where compulsory schooling reforms took place between 1942 and 1967.1 These results are very clear and for the first time contrary to conventional wisdom. When one considers forced additional education – for those women who increased their schooling years because of an increase in compulsory schooling, more education, in fact, means an increase in the number of children per woman and a decrease in the proportion of women who remain childless. The quantitative effect is fairly large. One additional year of schooling increases the number of children by approximately 0.2 and the probability of remaining childless by around ten percentage points. Figure 1 rearranges mean fertility rates of cohorts adjacent to the change in compulsory schooling reforms (the pivotal cohort) in deviations from the mean. While we can see a long-run falling trend in fertility, the increase in compulsory schooling at the pivotal cohort clearly shows a break in this trend.
Figure 1. Mean fertility rates
What are the reasons for this surprising result? Compulsory schooling reforms target only women who typically would have very low education. For these women, the higher income potential – reachable through better jobs – may allow them to “afford” more children, whereas effects on time-use – lower fertility due to higher labour-force participation – may be less severe. Moreover, we present evidence that additional schooling leads also to i) a higher probability of getting married, ii) a lower divorce/separation rate and iii) a potential partner who is better educated and, thus, more able to access financial resources himself. Thus, one could say, a part of the mechanism is due to mating and marriage behaviour and a part is due to income effects proper.
From this study it is not yet clear whether with any expansions of the educational system policymakers in general could also increase fertility in the population; but at least these results call into doubt concerns that more schooling would automatically reduce the number of children a women may want.
Fort, Margherita, Schneeweis, Nicole and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer (2011), “More schooling, more children: compulsory schooling reforms and fertility in Europe”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8609.
Hazan, Moshe, and Hosny Zoabi (2011), “Do highly educated women choose smaller families?” CEPR Discussion Paper 8590, October.
Oreopoulos, Philip and Kjell G. Salvanes (2011), “Priceless: the non-pecuniary benefits of schooling”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 25(1), 159-184.
Skirbekk, Vegard (2008), “Fertility trends by social status”, Demographic Research 18(5), 145-180.
1 Data from the Survey on Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) and the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing (ELSA) are used.