Higher Education Leaders and the Falling Total Fertility Rate

Tomorrow’s students.

February 26, 2018

Did this 2/13/18 NYTimes headline catch the attention of college leaders throughout the land?

American Women Are Having Fewer Children Than They’d Like: Forecasts show many millennial women won’t fulfill their wishes on family size, and the biggest fertility declines are in Western states.

The article went on to share new data about the "precipitous decline” in U.S. fertility.  The total fertility rate (TFR), a measure of the average number of lifetime births per woman, is now down to 1.77.  This means that in the absence of immigration, the population will age and eventually decline.

In order to maintain a steady-state population, net of immigration or migration, the TFR needs to be about 2.1.  This is because men can’t give birth.

The reason that college leaders should care about fertility is simple.  Today’s babies (and immigrants) are tomorrow’s students.

College and universities in areas of where school-age population has been declining, such in the Northeast and Midwest, are already feeling the impact of unfavorable demographics in their recruitment efforts.  

The question is what role, if any, higher education leaders should be playing in our nation’s unfolding demographic story?

You may think that it is not the place of college leaders to be promoting a pronatalist, or pro-immigration, policies - even if demand for traditional higher education (18 to 22 year-old) postsecondary education ultimately is driven by demographic forces.

Also, don’t college leaders have their hands full?

Is worrying about the TFR (and immigration policies) beyond their sphere of influence?

Maybe.  But the NYTimes article points out that there is a big gap between the number of babies that women say that want, and the number of babies that they are having.

“...the gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”

Is this gap between desired and achieved fertility something that is mirrored on our campuses?

Are there policies that higher education leaders could put in place at their institutions that would enable the people who work at their schools to have the number of babies that they want?

How focused are today’s postsecondary leaders on issues such as reproductive health, adoption assistance, maternity/paternity leave, and affordable high-quality childcare?

Do we know if the the people who work in higher education are creating the family sizes that they desire?  And if not, what are the obstacles that they are facing?

Having those who work in higher education be able to meet their childbearing goals will not solve the long-run challenges of a declining school-age population.   

What is possible, however, is for higher education leaders to participate in the larger conversation about the interaction of demographic trends and the long-term prospects for postsecondary education.

At the very least, our colleges and universities should be doing whatever they can so that the people who work in higher education can achieve the family size that they desire.

After all, tomorrow’s students have to come from somewhere.


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