Trends in the Education Attainment of New Mothers

Pew Research Center released a report in May 2013 titled, Record Share of New Mothers are College Educated.  The report explored changing educational trends among new mothers.  “New mothers” include women between the ages of 15-44 who gave birth within the last year and those whose youngest child (living in their household) is less than one year old.

The findings reveal that in 2011, 66% of new mothers have at least some college education.  This data surpasses the statistics from 1960 when only 18% of new mothers had at least some college coursework.  According to the report, there has been a steady increase in women’s education levels since 1960.  In the same time frame, there was a steady decline in births, especially among less educated women.  The decline was particularly sharp between 2008 and 2011, when the number of new mothers with only a high school diploma fell by 15%.

At the same time, the number of children women with less education have over their lifetimes remains steady.  The Pew Report found women with a high school diploma have an average of 2.5 children compared to women with a bachelor’s degree who have an average of 1.7 children, a rate that has been steady for 25 years.

Why the difference? Past research (Becker 1981; Hotz, Klerman and Willis 1997; Mincer 1963; Pollak and Watkins 1993) relied on theories that women with less education chose to leave the workforce to give birth because they had less to lose financially than women with more education.  Another school of thought argued that less educated women desired more children (Blake 1967; Blake and Das Gupta 1975).

However, a study released in 2009 by Musick, England, Edgington, and Kangas debunks these ideas in its exploration of the relationship between women’s education levels and the average number of children they birth.  Taking a refreshing approach, the researchers focused on a mother’s intention and categorized the births by whether they were intended or “unintended,” that is, mistimed or unwanted.  They found that less educated women had more unintended births than more educated women.

The study hypothesizes potential reasons for unintended births that could warrant further research, including less access to contraception and less hope for an “ideal” context for childbearing resulting in increased ambivalence towards unintended births.

Overall, the Pew study reinforces the positive nature of maternal education and birth trends. Data cited in the report points to clear linkages between maternal educational achievement and a child’s improved outcomes.  That is, the more education a new mother has, the more likely that her child will be born at term and at a healthy weight; will display better cognitive skills during development; and will have greater academic achievement.  

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