What college women want

Since the 1970s, fertility rates in the U.S. have been pretty low. The causes are complex, but it’s clear that one of the major themes involves education. If we look at the completed childbearing of recent American women (based on General Social Survey data), those who didn’t finish high school averaged around 3 children, those who finished high school but didn’t get a 4-year college degree averaged around 2.2 children, and women with 4-year degrees averaged around 1.6 children.

In fact, around four in ten college-educated women had no children or only one child in the end, compared with around one in four women without 4-year degrees. These kinds of very low fertility outcomes are particular evolutionary puzzles.

Most notably, what’s the deal with college-educated women? One possibility is that lots of women generally don’t really want to have any children (or more than one) these days—maybe it’s something about how college-educated women are better able to control their actual outcomes to match these general preferences for very low fertility. Another possibility is that the sorts of women who get college educations in the first place also tend to be the sorts of women who disproportionately prefer very low fertility.

There are other possibilities, of course, but in this post I’ll focus on these two. Both predict that, if you ask college women about their family plans, large numbers of them will say that they would prefer very low fertility. Is this true?

To birth, or not to birth—that is the question

I’ve given various surveys to college students over the years, surveys that often included questions about what they wanted in terms of future mates, marriage, and children. I’ve ended up with a few thousand respondents from a nice range of normal American universities (Penn, ASU, UNC, UMich, UHouston, and UCF), as well as samples from a couple of countries in Europe and a couple in Asia. The combined sample includes over 1,300 women ages 18 to 23 (most were 18 or 19) at American universities. It’s not a random sample—it’s a convenience sample, mostly of undergrads taking big psych courses—but there’s no reason to think that, on the whole, it would be a seriously warped representation of these schools in the early 21st century.

So, in college, how many children did they see themselves eventually having? The average was 2.5. This is actually the same as the recent average completed fertility for American women who never went to college at all, and it’s almost a full child more than the average completed fertility of college graduates.

The charts below give a more detailed view, contrasting the desired number of children for the sample of American university women with the actual fertility of college-educated women ages 42 and higher. So, for example, less than 9% of the university sample said they wanted either no children or only one child, while among college-educated women in recent years, the actual outcome was around 42%.

GSSColFert(Technical notes: The college-student sample size is 1,349. The GSS sample size is 1,239; results are weighted.)

Given the enormous contrast between the expectations of college students and the outcomes of college graduates, perhaps the student numbers are fundamentally unserious—perhaps they say they want kids, but it’s not actually something that’s important to them. The surveys asked about this, having the students rate how important eventually having children was to them. Over 60% of women rated it a 7 on a scale that maxed out at 7. The average for the group as a whole was 6.1, with only 7% rating it below the scale’s mid-point.

Results were even more impressive for wanting to get married. Over two-thirds of women gave the importance of eventually getting married a maximum 7 out of 7, and the sample average was 6.4.

Perhaps they imagine all this happening in some very distant future that need not be taken seriously any time soon? No, that’s not it. When asked at what age they’d like to get married, the typical female student said 25. The middle 80% of the sample said they wanted to get married between the ages of 23 and 28. And when did they want their first child? The middle 80% said between the ages of 25 and 30.

But do they understand that these fairy tales of marriage and children typically require, you know, a prince? Maybe they don’t imagine princes, but they do image the sorts of guys who do well as married fathers. For almost half the sample, I asked them to rate 32 possible characteristics in a future partner. I threw the kitchen sink at it: physical attractiveness, income, likes to travel, has lots of friends, is dependable, ambitious, creative, laid back, educated, thoughtful, and so on, and so on. And here are the top six most highly rated things that these women want: Someone who you trust; who wouldn’t cheat on you; who’s stable; kind; will be with you forever; and—oh, yes, wait for it—would be a good parent. That’s their top six. In college. Around age 19. In the 21st century.

Come on—they’ve got to be, like, religious conservative nuts or something, right? Actually, not even a quarter were attending religious services more than once a month. About half had had multiple non-intercourse hook-up partners in the past few years, about half imagined they’ve have multiple intercourse partners over the next few years, and almost two-thirds said they got drunk at least once in a typical month. All these numbers are roughly typical of college kids these days. They’re not as routinely wild as many media accounts claim, but neither are they routinely cloistered—in reality, college kids are a sociosexually diverse lot.

No, really, humans typically want to reproduce

In my recent posts, I’m exploring the evolutionary puzzle of modern low fertility (I started here and here). There have occasionally been views from evolutionary thinkers (including some big names) that essentially come down to this: Humans evolved to seek out sex and to take care of children when they arrive, but aren’t really naturally inclined to seek reproduction per se; so, when you introduce modern birth control, and let people have sex without ever having kids, that’s what tons of them will do.

There’s just very little in the data to suggest that this is a plausible account. For example, when sociologists talk to low-education teens who are “at risk” for pregnancy, they often hear back that these teens understand about birth control but want to have children. And, though it’s an unpopular finding on both sides of the aisle, it turns out that neither abstinence programs nor comprehensive sex ed programs typically have much effect on actual behavior, including actually using birth control. And, as we just saw above, young college women—who overwhelmingly don’t want children right now and also are generally knowledgeable about modern birth control—nonetheless typically have strong and explicit desires to eventually have children.

So the puzzle is coming into focus. What we need is an account of why young women generally want to have children these days, yet (1) they don’t want very many and (2) they often end up falling short of even their relatively modest target numbers. Again, I’m not promising a tidy answer—this stuff is really hard—but I’ll try to get us closer. More to come.