Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
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.
Women in general have a lot more education now ... and that means new moms are gaining more education, too. —Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher at Pew

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.

Other recent Pew research has found that younger adults and those with lower incomes are more likely than others to have delayed childbearing because of the recession. And a recent national report called "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America," by the National Marriage Project, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the RELATE Institute suggested that privileged Americans are delaying marriage and having children, instead using their 20s to accumulate experience and financial footing.

That study's authors told the Deseret News that those with college degrees will likely produce privileged children with predictable opportunities. Delays in marriage age give well-educated women, in particular, and their future children a chance to get ahead. The other, larger group of kids will have to work harder and will have fewer opportunities to move up socially and economically.

The Pew study did not look at the recession's impact on fertility, but Livingston's other work found indications that the recession contributes to a lower fertility rate and that a better economy might boost the birth rate, at least a bit.

"On one hand, general declines in the birth rates have been going on for decades and declines are bigger for the less educated than for the more-educated," Livingston said. "There's no reason to think that would change in economic recovery. But just the fertility drop that occurred during the recession might cause some bounce back if there's recovery."

In the report, new moms were women 15 to 44 who had given birth in the past year. To look at 2008 to 2011, Livingston and Cohn used data from the American Community Survey. To go further back, they used a similar but not identical set of data that included a small share of women who adopted or had stepchildren and excluded women who gave birth in the last year but did not live with their children. Findings were similar.

The U.S. Census Bureau said in 2011 that 4.1 million women reported having given birth within the past 12 months. It said 36 percent of those women were unmarried at the time of the survey, up from 31 percent in 2005, the earliest year data was available from the American Community Survey.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco