Five years ago, I wrote a paper (pdf) critiquing the idea that HECS contributed to childlessness among female graduates.
Though my conclusion of no effect was supported by an article in the Journal of Population Research last year, using the HILDA survey which has a question on student debt, one of my main theories as to why female graduates have a low average number of children continues to be largely overlooked – and surprisingly so, I think.
My theory turns on the admittedly (and this is why it is surprising) rather obvious point that, despite advances in reproductive medicine, babies are more likely to be born if there is a man in the house, and one likely to stick around long enough to help raise the child. I reported data based on the 1996 census showing that married women in the professional jobs that graduates normally aspire to actually had near-replacement fertility levels. It was the large number of unmarried and childless women pushing down the average.
Unfortunately the marriage factor has been a blind spot in subsequent research that I have seen on this topic. In the Journal of Population Research article they controlled for half a dozen variables, but not whether or not there was a potential father. My suggestion that perhaps one solution to low fertility among female graduates was improved education for boys, to improve the dating market for educated women, was reported as ‘perhaps tongue in cheek’.
Another otherwise interesting paper on graduate childlessness, published this week by NATSEM, looking not just at graduates in general but by field of study and occupation, mentions marriage only in passing, focusing instead on the career circumstances of women.
The NATSEM paper finds that childlessness increased among women aged 30-39 in professional jobs between 1996 and 2006, though not by as much as women in other occupations.
Though it provides no numbers on children born, a People and Place article by Genevieve Heard on marriage and partnerships gives us a good idea of what might explain the findings of the NATSEM survey (both papers use the same census data source).
Between 1996 and 2006 the proportion of female graduates who were married declined in all age groups, but except in the 25-29 year old group not by nearly as much as women with other qualifications. That’s consistent with the childlessness pattern reported by NATSEM. A rise in de facto relationships means that for graduate women their overall partnered rate has increased slightly, but this less stable arrangement is not as conducive an environment to a 20-year childrearing commitment as marriage itself.
I’m not sure why marriage doesn’t get more attention in this literature. Perhaps the left-leaning politics of most social scientists has steered them towards explanations to do with career obstacles for women, rather the role of men in making babies and bringing up children.