The Thinking 

A Look at Fertility and Educational Attainment

June 4, 2012



Looking at fertility of white women in America over the past 40 years, we see the development of a sharp divergence between college-educated and non-college-educated women.

In 1970, the fertility patterns of college-educated women, who represented a much smaller proportion of the overall female population, didn’t differ much from the non-college-educated.

Both groups of women had a strong preference for having their children young, before they were 30. Delaying childbearing until later in life was not common in either group. Also, illegitimacy was low for both.

Much has changed since. The group of college-educated women has expanded dramatically and a sharp disparity has developed  between the fertility of the non-college-educated, who account for more than 60 percent of all births, and the educated.

The non-college-educated woman in 2009 is more prone to delay having children until 30 than the college-educated woman was in 1970. And, among the college-educated, the desire to have children before 30, which was very strong in 1970, almost completely disappeared by 2009. Also, overall fertility has dropped greatly among both groups of women.

The high school dropout in 1970 had an illegitimacy ratio of ten percent while the esteemed college graduate had an illegitimacy ratio of only one percent; the ratio for the high school graduate was four percent.

By 2009, the formerly respectable and reasonable illegitimacy ratio among high school graduates of four percent had deteriorated to a disastrous illegitimacy ratio of 48 percent; the college graduate, however, deteriorated “only” from one percent to six percent over this time period, leaving the college graduate much better off than the high school graduate in terms of family formation competency by 2009.

Interestingly, women with doctorate degrees in 2009 had about the same illegitimacy ratio as high school graduates did in 1970; both at four percent. Looking at illegitimacy ratios in 2009, according to educational level among women 30 to 34 years old, the illegitimacy ratio was 44.0 percent among high school dropouts; 28.0 percent among those with high school only, 17.8 percent among those with some college, and 3.7 percent among those with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.

The other big change regarding educational attainment since 1970 is the great increase in the proportion of women with a college education. In 1970, eight percent of women of reproductive age (15 to 44) had a college degree; by 2009, this ratio had increased to 31 percent. Among older women, 30 to 44 years old, ten percent had college degrees in 1970, while 41 percent did so in 2009. Below is a table giving the distribution of births among whites according to the mother’s level of educational attainment.

Table Definitions: The numbers in the column headings indicate the years of schooling completed by the mother; 0-8 indicates less than high school education, 9-11 corresponds to a high school dropout, 12 indicates a high school graduate only, 13-15 indicates some college, 16+ indicates a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. The “all” designation indicates “All Whites”; the “nh” designation indicates “non-Hispanic whites”.

All numbers come from the Current Population Survey or from the National Center for Health Statistics. Not all states report the educational attainment level of mothers giving birth, the numbers given in the tables represent the population living in the states that reported Educational Attainment levels for the birth mother in the year given. The numbers in the tables do not represent the nation as a whole. The assumption is that the states reporting Educational Attainment do not differ significantly from the states not reporting Educational Attainment.

Distribution of Births According to the Educational Attainment of the Mother among Whites






1970all 6.6% 20.9% 48.4% 14.9% 9.2%
1990all 6.8% 15.7% 37.6% 20.6% 19.3%
1990nh 2.2% 13.1% 39.5% 22.8% 22.5%
2009nh 1.5% 9.3% 24.0% 30.8% 34.4%

The mainstream press has taken note of the relative rise of fertility among college-educated women. These news stories were pointing out a significant trend that lasted from 1990 to 2004 during which time the relative fertility of college-educated women compared to non-college-educated women rose 38 percent; however after 2004, this trend completely reversed and, from 2004 to 2009, the fertility of non-college-educated women compared to college-educated women rose 33 percent. In the single year of 2007,  the fertility of college-educated women dropped 15 percent while the fertility of non-college-educated women rose ten percent.

It is safe to assume that the sudden changes in fertility are due to the onset of the Great Recession;  why college-educated women responded to this external threat of economic insecurity by having fewer children while non-college-educated women reacted in the exact opposite manner by having more children, especially among the older non-college-educated women, is a matter of speculation. In an era of ever growing feminist assertions about the advancement of women, the majority of the female population of reproductive age, the non-college-educated, appear to pursue a strategy of greater dependence upon others, even when times get tough.

Below are tables showing the rise in illegitimacy among all educational levels from 1970 to 2009 and the history of the fertility rate among college-educated and non-college-educated women from 1970 to 2009.

Table Definitions: the numbers in the column headings indicate the number of years of schooling completed by the mother. “Total” indicates the Illegitimacy Ratio of the entire population. “all” indicates All Whites; “nh” indicates non-Hispanic whites.

Illegitimacy Ratios by Education Level among Whites






1970all 5.5% 9.8% 4.4% 3.8% 1.0%
1980all 10.2% 26.3% 8.3% 4.3% 1.2%
1990all 20.4% 45.6% 20.2% 11.0% 3.5%
2003all 29.4% 59.8% 38.3% 22.3% 5.1%
2003nh 23.4% 63.3% 35.5% 19.7% 4.1%
2009nh 29.5% 69.4% 47.5% 29.7% 5.7%

Table Definitions: “Coll.” represents College-educated women, women with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. “nColl.” represents non-College-educated women, all women with less than a Bachelor’s Degree level of education. The “Coll.” and “nColl.” columns represent all women of reproductive age from 15 to 44 years old. “15-29” indicates women 15 to 29 years old; “30-44” indicates women 30 to 44 years old. All of the numbers given refer to babies born per 1,000 women in a given year. “All” indicates All Whites; “nh” indicates non-Hispanic whites.

Note: The overall fertility rate of college-educated women in the table below is higher than it is for non-college educated women even though the non-college educated are likely to have a higher lifetime rate. This is due to the fact that women who become college graduates tend to have their children after receiving their college degrees, not before. A woman who becomes college educated still spends part of her reproductive life being non-college educated; this is the time from when the woman turns 15 until she gets her college degree. These years before the future college-educated woman gets her degree are counted in the “Non-College Educated” category. Since the future college-educated woman has very few children before getting her college degree while she is being counted in the “Non-College Educated” category the fertility rate of the “Non-College Educated” women is reduced.

My estimate of the projected lifetime Total Fertility Rate among non-Hispanic white women born between 1964 and 1973 is 1.709 children for college-educated women in 2008 and 1.972 children for non-college-educated women in 2008.

Fertility Rates per 1,000 of College and Non-College Educated White Women




15-29 Coll.

15-29 nColl.

30-44 Coll.

30-44 nColl.

1970all 96.1 83.1 144.5 116.9 50.2 34.4
1980all 71.4 64.2 93.5 89.1 54.3 26.2
1990all 67.4 68.3 82.4 99.1 55.0 35.2
1995all 72.1 61.6 86.4 89.7 65.7 34.5
1996all 70.6 61.7 85.8 89.2 64.1 34.9
1997all 72.9 60.6 85.9 88.3 67.0 33.6
1998all 73.7 61.6 88.0 89.0 67.4 34.6
1999all 75.1 61.3 88.9 88.0 69.0 34.6
1999nh 73.0 51.4 85.4 73.5 67.7 30.1
2000nh 76.1 51.6 85.0 73.1 72.2 30.7
2001nh 74.0 51.9 81.2 73.2 70.8 31.2
2002nh 74.3 51.2 80.3 71.5 71.7 30.9
2003nh 77.1 51.6 86.7 70.4 73.3 31.5
2004nh 79.7 50.4 88.3 68.9 75.9 30.2
2005nh 79.0 50.5 88.1 68.3 74.2 30.4
2006nh 78.8 52.2 90.9 69.6 73.4 31.1
2007nh 67.3 57.3 74.0 73.4 65.4 35.9
2008nh 66.0 56.8 69.4 72.5 64.9 35.6
2009nh 66.0 55.5 68.2 70.0 65.8 35.6


                                           — Comments  —-

RANDY writes:

Jesse Powell might want to watch Idiocracy and view Mike Judge’s take on the same issue. He saw this all play out years ago. The movie even predicted the cause and effects of a black President. I think he actually came pretty close.

Ibitsaam writes:

Jesse Powell writes:

“… while non-college-educated women reacted in the exact opposite manner by having more children, especially among the older non-college-educated women, is a matter of speculation. “

I had a similar discussion recently about the seemingly illogical reality that often, the most destitute and financially insecure people have the most children. I think they are actually incentivised to have as many children as possible, i.e. on a very primal level, the more children you have, the better your odds of having at least one or a few of them make a better life for themselves, which will help YOU in old age. Personally, I know of an elderly woman, who had a very hard life, making ends meet for her five children. The first three didn’t amount to much, but the youngest two are stable and able to take care of their mother in her old age. If she had only had the (first) one, she would’ve been destitute. (Of course it then becomes ‘society’s’ problem to take care of those ‘who didn’t amount to much’.)

A college educated woman is more likely to be financially secure and able to support herself in her old age, and therefore doesn’t need to be supported by her offspring.

I imagine this process is subconcious.

Mr. Powell writes:

To address the surprising finding that college educated and non-college educated women reacted in totally opposite ways to the “external stimuli” of economic troubles I had to scratch my head for awhile. To me the economic crisis that was impending in 2007, not actual yet, translated as “fear”. “Fear” when experienced by the college educated woman meant fewer children; that made intuitive sense to me, children being an obligation you want to be prepared for. “Fear” when experienced by the non-college educated woman paradoxically meant more children. How could that be? Then it hit me, having children doesn’t just lead to more responsibility for the mother, it also leads to more support for the mother. Maybe it is this greater level of outside support that the non-college educated woman is seeking when she responds to “fear” by having more children. This is what led me to speculate that the non-college educated woman is pursuing a “dependency strategy” by having more children when times become more economically uncertain.

There is an alternate possibility, that impending job loss or economic insecurity may not mean “fear” to all non-college educated women, it may instead mean “freedom” from jobs that they don’t really like anyways. Unemployment to these women may provide them with the opportunity to focus their energies on having the children they’ve been thinking about having for awhile.

When looking at the fertility rate tables in more detail you will find comparing 2007 to 2006 that the decline in fertility among college educated women was particularly sharp among younger women (15 to 29 years old). This is consistent with the hypothesis that the younger college educated woman has “plenty of time to wait” and so can more easily decide to put off having children if the timing right now “isn’t right.” Among non-college educated women, the jump in fertility is particularly strong among older women (30 to 44) years old. This is consistent with these older women thinking “there’s no time like the present, I can’t put things off much longer” when they are presented with a particularly fortuitous time to have a child such as them being given the perfect excuse to quit their jobs now that a recession is coming.

Also, the shift towards fertility among non-college-educated women actually started in 2004 and was then greatly accelerated by the economic crisis that was visibly coming in 2007. The year 2004 coincides pretty closely to women’s falling labor force participation in general. It is possible that the more important factor going on here is not the economic crisis but is instead the new shift of women out of the labor force that is accelerated by the economic crisis. Looking at non-Hispanic white women from 1999 to 2006 aged from 25 to 34 years old the drop in the labor force participation rate was much larger among women with a high school education only, 4.1 percentage points (from 75.3% to 71.2%), than it was for women with a Bachelor’s Degree only, 1.1 percentage points (from 84.7% to 83.6%). In other words the drop in labor force participation seen in women overall since the year 2000 appears to be strongly concentrated among the non-college educated women (in the 25 to 34 age range). Maybe the less educated women dropping out of the labor force is the major reason why fertility has shifted to the less educated. If the increase in fertility seen among the non-college educated is being driven by women leaving the labor force then this trend is likely to persist for a long time as I believe women leaving the labor force is a “new reality” that will last for a long time. Indeed, even though it may be the less educated women leaving the labor force today women who are more educated will likely be leaving the labor force tomorrow.

Kathleen Casey writes:

The more children low-income women have the more public assistance they qualify for. Cash assistance, Section 8 housing, food stamps, etc. Here in New York State especially. The workfare requirement phases in after five years and there is anecdotal discussion that this affects the timing of births among welfare mothers. The incentives are predictable and sordid aren’t they?

The problem came to me virtually immediately while reading the post — the state as dad with a wallet in his back pocket. Most educated women have more background and horizons than this.

Laura writes:

I don’t doubt that government benefits have something to do with the difference, but I find it hard to believe that there aren’t other serious factors too, given the size of the gap.


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