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How Should Higher Ed Respond to 'The End of Babies’?

Some thoughts on why, and how, we should have this campus conversation.

November 18, 2019
 
 

For an excellent take on Anna Louie Sussman's New York Times article “The End of Babies,” check out Matt Reed's piece “From Day-Care Centers to Online Classes.”

As someone who trained as a social demographer, my reaction to the Sussman article is a bit different (but maybe complementary) to Dean Dad's.

Before I offer my (three) thoughts on “The End of Babies,| I think it is valuable to pause for a moment to consider our higher ed community's role in this conversation.

Where do we, as higher ed people, come into the discussion of fertility? Is the decline of birth rates in the U.S. a matter only of worry for future admissions officers and demographers? And if college and university leaders are going to talk about issues related to childbearing, how should they go about structuring this conversation?

I have three suggestions.

1. Move the Conversation to Desired Family Size

What the Sussman article does well, I think, is to frame the decline in the TFR (total fertility rate) in terms of a growing mismatch between stated family size preferences and family size. As the article points out, women (and couples) are having fewer babies today than they say they want.

As the article points out, the reasons for declining fertility (below replacement levels of 2.1 babies per woman), are complex. Part of the reasons why women have fewer babies than we'd expect from their preferences is economic. Everything about having a baby, from childcare to tuition payments, is hugely expensive.

Cost is not the only factor for the shift to below-replacement fertility. Denmark's TFR has also fallen rapidly, even in the context of high-quality subsidized childcare and low-cost university options. Declines in religiosity and marriage, combined with higher educational and employment demands, also lower fertility.

The point is that while many of us worry about fewer babies (which means fewer high school graduates and applicants, not to mention few people paying for our Social Security), the best way to approach this question is to support the fertility preferences of women and couples.

We should equally value and support the choice to have zero kids and the decision to have many.

2. Ask the People in Our Communities (Faculty, Staff, Students) About Their Goals and Constraints Around Family Formation

Once we decide that it is important to support individual choices, rather than try to influence which choices are made, I think we can have a different sort of discussion about babies.

A college or university consists, in its entirety, of its people. Yes, there are buildings. And a brand. And maybe an endowment or other assets. But none of these things matter without the students, professors and staff. (And alumni and future generations of students).

The job of university leaders is to support the people (students, faculty, staff) who make up a university's community. Full stop. University leaders -- presidents, provosts, deans -- don't do the actual work of the university (mostly). That work is done by the faculty and staff, in the service of the students. (And also in the service of future generations, as expressed in the role of higher ed to create and disseminate knowledge).

If university leaders work for the people in their community, then they should feel that part of their role is to support the whole individual. Professors and staff and students are also parents (or prospective parents), sisters, brothers, caregivers, community members and many other roles.

Listening to the family-formation goals of the professors, students and staff is within this definition of leadership. Understanding the constraints and obstacles that people experience in having and raising kids, and then trying to address those issues, should be among the priorities of any university leader. All caregiving should be supported, as best as the institution can manage.

3. Commit to Invest Scarce Resources to Respond to What Is Learned From These Conversations

When it comes to university leaders supporting the people who make up the university community, listening is not enough. I was appalled to read Matt Reed's descriptions of the day-care center closures that he has watched firsthand. What an incredibly shortsighted step to save a few dollars.

If the dollars don't exist for structures that make it feasible to both work at a university and have kids, such as a day-care center, then the job of leadership is to raise those funds.

The economic model of almost every college and university depends on managing demand. The demand for a university depends, in part at least, on supply. This is why tuition-dependent schools in the Northeast and the Midwest will face such an uphill battle in the years to come. The number of high school graduates will steeply decline in these regions.

A gap between the desired and the realized fertility preferences of women and couples will, ultimately, translate into lower demand for college. Fewer babies eventually mean fewer students. As higher ed people, we have a role to play in this conversation.

The place to enter this discussion about babies is where we are. If we can figure out how to support the family choices of our professors, staff and students -- well, that would be a start.

How did you respond to “The End of Babies”?

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