American birth rates decline, again, and why this matters for higher education

American fertility shrank in 2020, according to a new Centers for Disease Control report.

In this post I’ll break down what that means, and what it implies for the future of education.

Overall, the number of children born in America declined from 2019 to 2020. The past year saw 3,605,201 live births, compared with 3,747,540 in 2019 for a drop of 4%.  And in 2019 the number of births also declined.  As it did in 2018.  And in 2017.

At a macro level, the total fertility rate (TFR) was 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women, or 1.64.  TFR is an estimate of “the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes.” For context, demographers have long held that to keep a population at its present status, the average number should be 2.1, or “replacement level.” A TFR of 1.64 it below replacement, which means that unless we undergo a massive sea change in our reproductive habits, America’s total population will shrink, without immigration adding new people to the mix.

This isn’t a sudden development.  CDC observes that “[t]he rate has generally been below replacement since 1971 and has consistently been below replacement since 2007.”

CDC birth and fertility US 1990-2020

Watch that sharp downturn from 2007 on.

I and others have been observing this for a while.  Suppressed fertility is part of the modern condition. TFR almost universally drops once any society improves public health, expands medical care, educates women at scale, and gives women greater access to both reproductive control and careers outside the home.  This new data just takes the curve further along to a “record low for the nation.”

This decline occurred across all races, so no significant changes there:

CDC births by race 2019-2020

One more detail: teen births continue to decline:

CDC teen births 1991-2020

CDC reckons this to be “another record low for this age group.” They add that “[t]he rate has declined by 63% since 2007 (41.5), the most recent period of continued decline, and 75% since 1991, the most recent peak.” On a meta level, I’m amazed that few people discuss this development. I am old enough to remember teen pregnancy crises in the 1980s and 1990s.  It looks like we’ve seriously turned a corner on those – and should celebrate!  It’s very good and durable news.

What does this mean for the future?

One inference we can make from this data is that the pandemic did not spur a bunch of pregnancies.  The idea was out there, that people locked up in various forms of quarantine would find themselves with more opportunities to procreate. The results are clearly the reverse. It may be that the hypothesis is just wrong for modern societies. Another explanation is that the horrible economic crash of spring 2020 caused many people to put off childbirth for a more favorable financial time.  Or both.  A useful case study for future confinement instances.

This report also further weakens the “humanity is overrunning the world with babies” idea, the most recent version of which dates back to the early 1970s.  It is possible that there are too many humans for environmental reasons, although that’s debatable, but developed nations are not driving that number higher. Overall we should hit peak human population in a few decades, then start dwindling.

The data will feed into immigration arguments, serving as ammunition for those who prefer greater numbers of new folks migrating into the United States.  To the extent that those with strong anti-immigration views also want a growing population, they will have to cope with a contradiction.

We may also see more American calls for more women to have more children.  As I’ve written previously, the modern historical track record of such calls indicates likely failure.

What does this mean for colleges and universities?

To reiterate: a big swath of American higher ed teaches traditional-age undergraduates. The pipeline producing such students is continuing to narrow. As a result, we can anticipate some mix of: greater competition between campuses for a shrinking pool; shifting institutional resources towards adults; expanding education for senior citizens.

The immigration angle plays out in academia, giving us incentives to more aggressively recruit international students.  The Trump administration and COVID-19 hit this hard. Now we’ll see campuses scramble to win more students.  But remember that many nations are experiencing similar TFR reductions, too.

Two further points.  One is that Americans seem very uncomfortable talking about demographics. We often have bad data (cf the persistence of the unexploding population bomb), or fear raising the topic at all.  Some folks who actually think about the data react sharply by insisting that demography isn’t destiny, which is true, but it is one powerful force to consider in our decision making. In higher education I hear about demographics in senior leadership primarily. I’m not sure if broader and better discussions will occur, but I keep trying to nudge them forward.

A second is that the CDC study and this post are not referring to the worldwide decline of sperm count. That’s a major topic for us to consider and I’m planning on addressing it as I get time.



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5 Responses to American birth rates decline, again, and why this matters for higher education

  1. It’s no accident that my institution’s first partnership is with a study center in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s the biggest city by far in the country that’s projected to be the most populated country on Earth by the end of the century. It’s amazing to me how so few American IHEs open branch campuses abroad, and even then almost always only in locations that are currently high income, not thinking about what the world will likely look like in a few decades’ time.

    Webster University has one in Accra, Ghana; and Monroe College has one in St. Lucia. There might be a few others, but those are the only examples that come to mind.

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  5. Glen McGhee says:

    There’s a lot going on, including the incoming “sansdemic”.
    If jobs are coming back, then why go to college? Certainly something to consider.

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