Childbearing May Hinder Higher Education for Women

But Do Findings in Norway Apply to Other Nations?


Young women petting dog

Photo: Joseph Mischyshyn

In almost every country, women with more education have fewer children. But does education reduce childbearing-- or does having children get in the way of education? A new large-scale study done in Norway has found that, at least among some women, childbearing kept women from pursuing a higher education. The findings are reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These results suggest that women with advanced degrees have lower completed fertility on the average principally because women who have one or more children early are more likely to leave or not enter long educational tracks, and never attain a high educational level,” said Joel E. Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Cohen and his co-authors, Øystein Kravdal and Nico Keilman, from the University of Oslo, followed all the women born in Norway in 1964 from ages 17 to 39, using year-by-year data on education, enrollment and reproduction. They had expected to find that women with more education chose to bear fewer children. Instead, they found mainly that women who had children early seemed not to pursue a higher education. "That's the main contribution of our paper," said Kravdal. "We quantified the relative importance of fertility for education and vice versa."

On some level, the study seems to go against conventional wisdom, but the issue remains complex. Other studies in developing countries [pdf], including Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya and the Philippines, have shown that when girls complete primary or secondary education, they tend to delay childbearing, and their overall fertility declines. Based partly on the evidence of this effect, governments and international aid agencies have placed emphasis on educating girls, and girls’ education figures prominently in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. However, most of these studies concentrated on the lower-level school grades, and were done in developing nations, where high rates of fertility and low rates of education, especially among women, are an issue.

In the paper, Cohen and his colleagues offer several possible policy implications of their findings. For example, should women be discouraged from bearing children at an early age? They suggest that policy makers could recognize that early childbearing may be a result of decisions made by well-informed individuals. But if women underestimate how much childbearing interferes with further education — along with potentially adverse consequences for their long-term quality of life — then a case could be made that it would be a good idea to create more awareness about the educational consequences of early childbearing. Or, policies could try to offset the effect of childbearing on education by, for example, lowering the cost of child care for students who are mothers.

“We did this study in Norway because that's where we could get such beautiful data, not because that's where there's a big problem,” Cohen said. “We discussed the policy implications at length, but with hesitation because more and better analyses need to be done, especially in developing countries.” 

Watch a lecture by Joel Cohen on interactions between populations of humans and livestock