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Population and Education

Social and Economic Factors, Conclusions

The relationship between education and population has attracted the attention of both scholars and policymakers, especially since the mid-1970s. The rate of population growth and the number of people living on earth have both increased spectacularly since the beginning of the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the human population increased at an average annual rate that was about fifty times as fast as the rate over the previous 10,000 years. Between 1800 and 2000, the number of people alive increased nearly seven-fold. Following World War II, the rate of population growth exploded–during the 1970s it was about four times as great as it had been a century earlier. By 2000, the living population exceeded the entire population born between the beginning of settled agriculture and the year 1900–a period of 10,000 years.

The implications of this explosive growth for both the physical environment and human wellbeing alarmed many observers and prompted an intense public policy debate. Many scholars and policymakers noted that high levels of educational achievement were associated with more moderate rates of population growth, suggesting that important opportunities for alleviating population pressures might be found in ensuring greater access to education, particularly for females. The ensuing public policy debate has prompted an examination of how education affects the birth rate.

The explosive growth of the human population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the result of a historically unprecedented decline in the rate of mortality, rather than an increase in the birth rate. The proportion of children dying before reaching the age of five fell from nearly one in three in most of the world to less than one in one hundred in the most advanced societies over this period, and to one in ten in low-income countries. In the wealthiest countries, birth rates adjusted quickly to restore a balance between births and deaths and establish a rate of population growth of less than 1 percent a year. In economically advanced societies, the average number of children born to each woman over her reproductive life has fallen from about seven to less than two. However, in the poorest countries, a sharp drop in death rates has not been accompanied by a corresponding fall in birth rates. As a result, the rate of population growth–the difference between the average birth rate and the average mortality rate–has increased dramatically in most of the world. The growth of population has been greatest in countries that are both poorest and least able to invest in social and educational services. The combined effects of these forces seem to imply that the gulf between rich and poor is likely to widen over the foreseeable future if aggressive policy measures are not introduced.

These facts suggest that the key to ensuring a sustainable rate of population growth lies in reducing the fertility rate. However, in a highly influential 1979 review of the research literature on the relationship between education and fertility, the economist Susan Hill Cochrane concluded that too little was known about the mechanisms through which education affects population growth to allow policy-makers to rely on improvements in educational opportunities to slow the rate of population growth. Since 1976 a large number of scholars have focused on the impact of education–especially the education of the girl child–on fertility, mortality, and population growth. The central purpose of these studies has been to determine whether the nearly universal association of low fertility and high levels of educational attainment are causally linked or merely the result of their association with other forces that directly affect fertility. For example, the inverse relationship between female literacy and fertility might have nothing to do with education as such, but might instead simply reveal that societies that seriously attempt to educate females also care about the welfare of women and therefore seek to control fertility in order to protect their health.

Social and Economic Factors

The research literature has sought to identify the causal pathways that link education and fertility. The scholars working in this area have been drawn primarily from the disciplines of economics, sociology, and demography, and they have brought with them the conceptual and methodological traditions of their respective disciplines. Economists have suggested that the issues be organized around the familiar (for economists) ideas of supply and demand. They have argued that the number of children actually born to a couple is determined by the capacity to bear children, the factors that determine desired family size, and the couple's ability to achieve its aims. The capacity for meeting fertility goals is determined by such factors as age at marriage, the health of the woman, her fertility, and customs and taboos that affect sexual relations. Women who marry early or enter into sexual unions at a younger age have a greater potential for childbearing than those who marry late. Nutritional status and disease history affect a woman's ability to conceive or to carry a pregnancy to full term. Cultural prohibitions against sexual relations for a prescribed period following childbirth or during breast-feeding reduce the period during which a woman may become pregnant. Failure to ovulate during breast-feeding also reduces the period during which a woman might become pregnant.

The demand for children (the number of children that a couple desires) is also the outcome of complex calculations. Economists have predictably focused on the net contributions of children to the income and material welfare of the family. In verylow-income communities, children typically become contributors to the economic welfare of the family at a very young age. Small children care for younger siblings, thereby releasing their mothers to work either in the fields or in shops. Often, very small children also assist in the herding of small animals and in the care of kitchen gardens. In addition, children provide parents with economic security in their old age. As average incomes and aspirations rise, parents typically seek to have fewer children and to provide these children with more and better education. Labor market demands and the cultural values of higher-income communities stress education as a requisite of social success. Therefore, as incomes rise, families tend to have fewer children but to invest much more in the nurturing and education of each child. The demand for children is also affected by the costs of providing daughters with dowries and wedding celebrations.

The ability of a couple to achieve its desired family size depends in part on access to contraception. The decision to control fertility is affected by a very complex set of customs and interpersonal forces. Cultural norms that value large families make the limitation of fertility a very difficult choice for many couples living in traditional societies. The social status of the couple and its autonomy relative to mothers-in-law and other members of the extended family, clan, or community influence the choices that are made. The research literature has focused on the impact that formal education has on the decision-making autonomy of women concerning contraception and fertility choices. The literature posits that women who are better educated are not only more knowledgeable about the available options for limiting fertility, but also better equipped to negotiate these subjects with husbands and extended families. The impact of educational status on the openness of communication between husband and wife has received particular attention.

A second approach to the organization of discussions of the determinants of fertility has relied on a framework based on macro-sociological theories. Researchers have argued that the average educational attainment of members of a community, and the values and aspirations that emerge as a result, affect desired family size and access to contraception. These researchers have suggested that more-educated communities value smaller, higher-quality families. They have further argued that communities that have adopted modern values are more supportive of decisions to limit fertility.


Empirical research into the relationship between education and fertility has drawn varied conclusions. At the most aggregate level–comparisons of countries–the conclusion is fairly consistent: countries in which women are better educated typically have smaller families and lower rates of population growth. However, when efforts are made to examine the relationship between education and fertility at the level of the household, the findings become more ambiguous. The World Fertility Survey and the Demographic and Health Surveys (large-scale international surveys of the characteristics and behavior of individual households) have revealed that cultural norms play a significant role in mediating the impact of education on fertility. The inverse relationship between female education and fertility cannot be found in nearly half of the fifty countries that the two surveys have covered. The failures have been most notable in the Middle East, where Islamic cultural values appear to collide with efforts to limit fertility, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where education levels are often very low. A common generalization arising from research based on these surveys is that the education of females does not affect fertility until an average of four or five years of schooling is provided to most girls.

Quantitative research into the relationship between education and fertility has focused primarily on the relationship between girls' schooling and achieved family size. Efforts to examine simultaneously the impact of boys' education on fertility suggest that perhaps a third of the effect of education on family size operates through boys' education.

The extensive research literature on female education and fertility has been undertaken primarily in order to document the likely effect of additional investments in the education of girls on the rate of population growth. The literature has grown enormously since the mid-1970s. The complexity of the forces that determine desired and actual family size has grown more apparent as a result of this research. However, until a more powerful way of organizing and interpreting the facts can be developed, it will remain impossible to predict with reasonable accuracy the impact of improvements in girls' education on fertility, family size, or population growth. Nonetheless, the contributions that education makes to the economic productivity and the quality of life for both individual women and their families argue persuasively for investing in the education of girls.


BLEDSOE, CAROLINE H.; CASTERLINE, JOHN B.; JOHNSON-KUHN, JENNIFER A.; and HAAGA, JOHN G. 1999. Critical Perspectives on Schooling and Fertility in the Developing World. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

COCHRANE, SUSAN H. 1979. Fertility and Education: What Do We Really Know? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

JEJEEBHOY, SHIREEN J. 1995. Women's Education, Autonomy and Reproductive Behavior. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

POPULATION REFERENCE BUREAU. 2001. 2001 World Population Data Sheet. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.


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