Education, especially female education, seems to reduce fertility.  Economists standard explanation is that women’s foregone earnings are the leading cost of children.  If you raise women’s education, you raise their potential income; and as you raise their potential income, you raise the cost of fertility.

This story sounds good, but economists rarely notice that there are several other plausible mechanisms for female education to reduce fertility:

1. Education changes values in an anti-natal direction.

2. Education correlates with stricter self-imposed rules for parenting.

3. Both education and fertility depend on foresight.

I addressed these stories in an earlier draft of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but in the end the material seemed too wonky for public consumption.  But not for EconLog…

The Values Story

Now consider the greatest perceived triumph of Becker’s
approach: the fact that increasing education – especially women’s education –
explains much of the decline in fertility. 
The facts are clear, but the best way to interpret the facts is
not.  Education could affect fertility by making it more expensive to take time off from
work.  Yet it could just as easily affect
fertility by changing values. 

Teachers and professors often explicitly try to “broaden
horizons” – to undermine students’ preconceptions, and introduce them to less
traditional measures of success.  In a
sense, one of educators’ goals is to convince students – especially female
students – that there’s more to life than having kids.  To some degree, educators succeed; they may
be uninspiring speakers, but they do have captive audiences. 

The Self-Imposed Rules Story

noting: Time diaries show that better-educated parents devote more time to
childcare. (Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, p.75)  This suggests yet another way for education
to reduce family size: Educated parents impose stricter rules on themselves.  Why does female education matter more?  Because women have stronger opinions about
upbringing.  Dad usually gives Mom extra
say on the family’s self-imposed rules, as long as he’s not in charge of
compliance.  The best-educated moms keep
their families small because the rules they choose to impose on themselves are
especially tough to live by.

The Foresight Story

The foresight story suggests another reason why
the well-educated have fewer kids: More educated people have more
foresight.  Educational success, like sexual
self-regulation, requires the sacrifice of short-run pleasures.  Would you rather study for a midterm, or go
to a party?  So when the well-educated –
especially well-educated women – feel tempted by unprotected sex, they are more
likely to resist.

On the last point, of course, the book goes on to explain why a little extra foresight is a dangerous thing