Moms are getting schooled: Record amount of mothers college educated, Pew says

A Pew Research Center study, out today, says a record amount of moms are college educated. The more educated the mother, the better off their child is going to be. 

Courtesy of Sheena Payne/American InterContinental University
More moms are getting a college education than ever before, a Pew Research Center study says. In this file photo taken Feb. 10, 2008, Sheena Payne of Orlando poses with her daughter, Laila. Ms. Payne put her education on hold when her daughter was born, but had just won a scholarship for an online college degree through Project Working Mom.

A new study of the impact of education on child bearing released today, “Record Share of New Mothers are College Educated” by the Pew Research Center, indicates that educating women beyond high school improves the health, social, and educational wellbeing of their kids, while the poorly educated get more children, both out of wedlock and much sooner.

The study confirms the more education a mom has, the better off her children will be in the short and long term by virtue of the fact that among all women with infants in 2011, the largest share, 54 percent, were married with at least some college education. This was compared to only 17 percent in 1960, according to Pew.

That increase appears to have resulted in women who wait to have kids and get married before becoming mothers. The children resulting from those more educated unions are healthier, full-term babies brought into more economically sound households, Pew researchers discovered.

“The current pattern of fertility and marital status is largely due to the close link between marriage and educational attainment," the report says. "Women with college experience are more likely to be married than their less educated counterparts. 

“On average, a mother with more education is more likely to deliver a baby at term, and more likely to have a baby with a healthy birth weight. As they grow up, children with more educated mothers tend to have better cognitive skills and higher academic achievement than others. It is difficult to determine whether maternal education is causing some of these outcomes, or if it is serving as a proxy for some other causal factor (for example, economic well-being). What is irrefutable, though, is that on average the more education a woman has, the better off her children will be.”

However, the overall rise in educational levels has not equated to a decline in unwed pregnancies overall according to a survey released last week by the US Census Bureau which stated, “as of 2011, 62 percent of women age 20 to 24 who gave birth in the previous 12 months were unmarried. This compares with 17 percent among women age 35 to 39.”

The information comes from Social and Economic Characteristics of Currently Unmarried Women with a Recent Birth: 2011, an American Community Survey report. According to the Census, in 2011, 4.1 million women reported that they had given birth in the past year. Of these women, 36 percent were unmarried at the time of the survey, an increase from 2005 when an estimated 31 percent of recent births were to unmarried women (2005 was the earliest year for which statistics are available from the American Community Survey).

That survey did not take educational levels into account, therefore it’s difficult to know if the unwed 20- to 24-year-old moms were also enrolled in a four-year, higher education plan. Almost half (48 percent) of new mothers without a high school diploma are younger than 25, only 3 percent of new mothers with a bachelor’s degree are younger than 25, according to the report. Also, according to the research, about 6 out of 10 (61 percent in 2011) women with less than a high school diploma were unmarried when they give birth. This share declines to only 9 percent among women with at least a bachelor’s degree.

It seems there is little doubt that education plays a powerful role in the choices women make when it comes to life strategies.

Rose Kreider, a Census Bureau family demographer and one of the American Community Survey report’s authors, drew the conclusion that, “The increased share of unmarried recent mothers is one measure of the nation’s changing family structure. Nonmarital fertility has been climbing steadily since the 1940s and has risen even more markedly in recent years.”

One of the Pew study’s authors, Gretchen Livingston, said in an e-mail interview, “Yes it is certainly the case that non-marital births have been rising over time, and this is the case for all educational groups (though non-marital births are far less common for more educated women).”

However, Ms. Livingston added, “One way to think about it might be, were it not for the fact that the educational profile of new moms was increasing, the share of non-marital births would be even higher than it is.”

“Another thing to keep in mind — while it is the case that women are gaining more education, and more education is associated with births within marriage; it’s also the case that delaying marriage to go to college means that women have additional years where they are ‘at risk’ of a non-marital birth than would have been the case in the past (when they got married at 18 or 20, let’s say),” Livingston concluded.

When Livingston and her colleagues analyzed the age and educational attainment together, the largest category of mothers of infants in 2011 — accounting for 42 percent —includes those age 25 to 34 with at least some college education. Comparing that to the Census survey it appears that the figure of 62 percent of women age 20 to 24 who gave birth last year while unmarried does, in fact, correlate to the standard age of those not yet graduated from an institute of higher learning. Again, we can look back to the Census and see that this compares with 17 percent among women age 35 to 39, an age bracket that would be considered typically post-collegiate.

Also, 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.

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