Why the relation between children in the future and acquiring education is far from obvious
Is there a trade-off between having children and acquiring education? Most empirical literature in economics and other social sciences suggests that there is a negative relation between a parent’s educational level and the number of children. It is confirmed by what we see around us: those that are highly educated tend to have around one or two children, if any. This finding is endorsed in the case of women with individual level evidence published by Osili and Long , Lam and Duryea , Schultz , Duflo et al. : When women are more educated, they have fewer children. However, this does not answer the question of whether men and women that expect to have several children in the future choose to pursue a higher or lower level of education than those who expect none or few. It reverses the question that the previously mentioned literature is trying to answer. Instead of asking, “Do those that are educated have more or fewer children?” the question is: “If I want to have children in the future, does this encourage or keep me from getting more education?”
Economics theory gives us an idea what mechanisms could be at play. First, children are seen as costly in most middle and high income countries (rather than as an investment). Where I come from (South of Germany), the cost of a child is often compared to the cost of a Porsche. If someone wants to have a big family in the future, they might consider that it is quite costly and therefore invest in education which increases future income. Second, children can be time intensive. Child care might therefore decrease the time a parent can spend working in the labour market. This is costly for everyone, but it is even costlier for those that are highly educated and have a high income. This is the most commonly cited economics channel why those with a high income have fewer children. It can also lead to the result that someone who anticipates a large family sees education as less beneficial than someone who does not want to have children.
It quickly becomes obvious that labour market conditions are important. If parents can continue to work in the labour market without losing out on career opportunities and without losing the skills they have acquired due to education, there should be no reason why wanting a big family should keep someone from education. Sadly, this is not the case in many countries.
Interestingly, using the example of China, I found that being allowed to have two children instead of one during the 1990s increased the educational level of men and women. The empirical strategy and the results are described in my new working paper. There is still work to be done, but it should be seen as a positive sign that in middle and high income countries, wanting children and investing in education do not have to be contradictory.
References: E. Duflo, P. Dupas, and M. Kremer. Education, HIV, and early fertility: Experimental evidence from Kenya. The American economic review, 105(9):2757–2797, 2015. E. Duflo, P. Dupas, and M. Kremer. The Impact of Free Secondary Education: Experimental Evidence from Ghana. Working Paper, 2017. Lam and S. Duryea. Effects of schooling on fertility, labor supply, and investments in children, with evidence from Brazil. Journal of Human Resources, pages 160–192, 1999. U. O. Osili and B. T. Long. Does female schooling reduce fertility? Evidence from Nigeria. Journal of development Economics, 87(1):57–75, 2008.