While demographic research typically reports negative correlations between fertility and time spent in education, new research shows that more schooling does not necessarily lead to women having fewer children. In some circumstances, the higher income potential that additional education provides may enable some women to ''afford'' more children. What''s more, additional schooling can lead to higher marriage rates.
The study by Margherita Fort, Nicole Schneeweis and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer, which is published in the September 2016 issue of the Economic Journal, analyses data on over 11,000 elderly individuals in European countries where compulsory schooling reforms took place between 1936 and 1975. The results indicate that one additional year of schooling decreases the number of children by approximately 0.3 in England, but it raises the number of children by around 0.25 in continental Europe.
Conventional wisdom and a large demographic literature on fertility rates tell us that more education is associated with lower fertility. But these negative correlations between education and fertility do not necessarily imply a causal relationship running from education to fertility.
They may instead be due to reverse causation or third-factor problems: early pregnancies might impede further education or school drop-outs might also have a personality prone to early motherhood – both of these cases would lead to a negative correlation between education and fertility, but they would not tell us anything about a causal relationship.
Cutting through this statistical thicket is not simple: it requires a situation where individuals are randomly assigned to different levels of schooling. Comparing fertility outcomes for these different groups would allow us to draw conclusions about a causal relationship.
In recent years, several studies have tried to do exactly this, using historical changes in compulsory schooling. Repeatedly over time, governments all over Europe have increased the minimum number of years of schooling.
The new study analyses data on more than 11,000 elderly individuals from several continental European countries as well as England where compulsory schooling reforms took place between 1936 and 1975. The data come from the Survey on Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) and the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing (ELSA).
Figure 1 shows the mean number of schooling years for cohorts just before and after the 1947 education reform in England as compared to various reforms in Austria, Denmark, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The figure shows that the reforms had a large impact on average schooling levels, both in England and the continent.
The results on the effects on fertility are surprising and contrary to conventional wisdom. While women in England reacted to the increase in mandatory schooling with a decrease in their fertility, this behaviour cannot be observed in continental Europe: women who increased their schooling years have more biological children and are less likely to remain childless.
The quantitative effect is fairly large: one additional year of schooling decreases the number of children by approximately 0.3 in England and raises the number of children by around 0.25 in continental Europe.
Figure 2 rearranges mean fertility rates of cohorts adjacent to the change in compulsory schooling that are adjusted for differences in other characteristics: the increase in compulsory schooling at the pivotal cohort clearly triggers a reduction in fertility in England, but not so for continental European countries.
What are the reasons for this surprising result? What mechanism might lead women to have more children in a situation where they have more education?
First, compulsory schooling reforms target women who typically would have low education. For these women, the higher income potential may allow them to ''afford'' more children.
Second, evidence from continental European countries suggests that additional schooling also led to higher marriage rates.
The differential response to the compulsory schooling expansions in England and on the continent shows that schooling expansions might have unexpected effects. More schooling does not automatically reduce fertility. This is important because changes in fertility and the behaviour and resources of the offspring shape societies for years into the future.
''Is Education Always Reducing Fertility? Evidence from Compulsory Schooling Reforms'' by Margherita Fort, Nicole Schneeweis and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer is published in the September 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Margherita Fort is at the University of Bologna. Nicole Schneeweis and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer are at the University of Linz, Austria.