Record number of new moms have been to college

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 10:40 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — New moms are more educated than at any other time in U.S. history.

In 2011, two-thirds of new mothers had at least some college education, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Social and Demographic Trends project.

Of those becoming mothers for the first time, only 14 percent had not graduated from high school, according to the research, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Research also shows that less-educated moms, while a smaller percentage of the new mom pool, tend to have a higher average number of babies over their lifetimes than those with more education.

That so many new moms have gained at least some college education is not so surprising if you look at women and their educational profiles over the past half century, said one of the report's authors. "A much higher share of women have college experience than in the past," said Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at Pew.

"Women in general have a lot more education now ... and that means new moms are gaining more education, too," Livingston said. Besides that, she added, birth rates have declined for all age groups, but more for less-educated people than for the more-educated.

Fewer births

Birth rates are down in general, but especially among women with low educational attainment. And that has intensified since the onset of the Great Recession in late 2007. Overall, women who didn't graduate from high school have an average of 2.5 children over the course of their lives, compared to 1.7 for those with a bachelor's degree. The gap has closed "only slightly" in the last quarter-century, the report said.

"From 2008 to 2011, the number of new mothers with less than a high school diploma declined 17 percent, and the number with only a high school diploma went down 15 percent," it noted. "By contrast, the number of new mothers with some college education fell by 6 percent and the number with a bachelor's degree or more fell by just 1 percent."

Lots of studies have documented that mom's educational achievement impacts her child's well being — more schooling creates better outcomes, from an infant's birth weight to later academic achievement and cognitive test scores. What the studies don't say, though, is whether the difference is mom's educational achievement itself or whether something else that comes along with more academic achievement creates the difference.

"What is irrefutable, though, is that on average the more education a woman has, the better off her children will be," wrote Livingston and study report co-author D'Vera Cohn.

"My sense is that some people have this image that less-educated people are having all the babies," Livingston said. "I think it's interesting to put out there that's not what statistics show. On one hand, it is the case that on average the less-educated have more kids than those with more education. But they are a small and shrinking set of all women and a small share of new moms."

More traditional

The new report is among a number that show a trend: Women with higher education attainment follow a more traditional life trajectory from high school to college, marriage and beyond. "Those women tend to be married when they do have their babies," Livingston said. Sixty-one percent of new moms who did not finish high school were not married when they gave birth, compared to only 9 percent of those who had earned at least a bachelor's degree.

That's true of women of childbearing age, 15 to 44, whether they have children or not. More than half (56 percent) of women of childbearing age who have a bachelor's degree are married.

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