Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Women, Higher Education, Student Loans and Babies

A demographic fact of life is that women need to average 2.1 babies over their reproductive lifespans. If they have more the population grows, and if they have less the population declines and eventually reaches extinction.

Currently American women are averaging less than 1.9 children each. This is down from 3.1 in 1976 and 2.1 in 1990. More important the average number of children declines with increasing levels of education. According to data just released from the Census Bureau the average number of children born to women 40 to 44 years old at different levels of educational attainment is:
Not a high school graduate: 2.5
High school graduate: 1.9
College, no degree: 1.8
Associate degree: 1.9
Bachelor's degree: 1.7
Graduate/professional: 1.6

It is hardly in this country's long term interest to program itself for extinction. Yet we burden young college educated women--like men--with very large educational loan debt that must be repaid in the decade following college. These are exactly the same years when women who want children should be starting their families. Our public policy today is not to forgive women any part of their educational debt repayment obligation. We say in our loan repayment policies that it is more important to get a job and repay educational loans than it is to reproduce the species. This is nonsense. Society has a far greater interest in perpetuating itself than it does requiring women with educational loans to repay them instead of starting families.

What we need is an educational loan repayment policy that provides college educated women with a window for child bearing and rearing while they are young enough to do so. Perhaps the federal government could treat the first four years of a child's life as if the mother were still in college and not require education loan repayment for this period. Or perhaps the federal government could make the loan payments for the mother during this period. These costs are likely to be substantial (as they are today for in-school interest payments to lenders), but extinction is a more serious consequence for society.


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