Female education and its impact on fertility

The relationship is more complex than one may think

Ajou University, Republic of Korea, and IZA, Germany

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Elevator pitch

The negative correlation between women’s education and fertility is strongly observed across regions and time; however, its interpretation is unclear. Women’s education level could affect fertility through its impact on women’s health and their physical capacity to give birth, children’s health, the number of children desired, and women’s ability to control birth and knowledge of different birth control methods. Each of these mechanisms depends on the individual, institutional, and country circumstances experienced. Their relative importance may change along a country’s economic development process.

Female schooling and fertility, 2010
                        (selected countries)

Key findings


The fertility gap between women with primary vs no education widens as incomes increase, but decreases at higher (secondary vs primary) education levels.

Educated women are more physically capable of giving birth than uneducated women; but want fewer children and control birth better.

Educated women provide better care at home, thus increasing the value of their children’s human capital and reducing the need for more children.

At relatively early stages of a country’s development, educated women adopt modern birth control methods more often than uneducated women.


The negative correlation between female schooling and fertility is strong but not the same across countries; it varies at different levels of women’s education and stages of a country’s development.

Each factor affecting fertility works in certain settings, but the relative importance of each one is unknown.

Parents’ ability to generate wealth may be transferred to their children through investment in children’s human capital.

It is unclear whether education increases women’s access to new information or their ability to adopt new birth control technology.

Author's main message

Three mechanisms influence the fertility decision of educated women: (1) the relatively higher incomes and thus higher income forgone due to childbearing leads them to want fewer children. The better care these women give increases their children’s human capital and reduces the economic need for more children; (2) the positive health impacts of education, on both women and their children, mean women are better able to give birth and children’s higher survival rate reduces the desire for more; and (3) the knowledge impact of education means women are better at using contraceptives. For developing population policies, it is thus important to understand these impacts on income, health, and knowledge, and their influence on fertility decisions in the specific country context.

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