American birthrates decline again

American fertility rates have continued to decline, according to new data just published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  This has powerful implications for the future of the nation and world, as well as for higher education.

One key finding: fertility rates have fallen across all geographical regions:

Yes, city people are having fewer children than rural folks, as is pretty typical.

Each of those new rates is below replacement level, the number at which a population sustains its numbers.  Without immigration the total number of American residents will now shrink – not grow more slowly, but actually get smaller.

A second finding: birthrates dropped across the three races measured in the study, white, Latinx, and black.

The Washington Post quotes one analyst’s reaction to this aspect:

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said that what struck him about the new report is the figures on Hispanic women, who have traditionally had high fertility rates. From 2007 to 2017, Hispanic women experienced a 26 percent drop in fertility rates in rural areas, a 29 percent drop in smaller metro areas and a 30 percent decline in large metro areas.

He said the fertility rates for Hispanic women in urban areas are now below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman, which would keep the population stable.

The Latinx population remains the second-largest in the US, but its growth rate is slowing down.

A third point: the age at which women give birth continued rising.  Comparing 2017 to 2007 date the CDC found birth age “rises of 1.7 years in rural, 1.9 years in small or medium metro, and 2.4 years in large metro counties.”

This indicates, among other things, that teen pregnancy continues to decline.

What does this CDC report suggest about the future?

We may be seeing much more serious political stresses over childbirth, fertility, and immigration, especially if the latter drops under Trump.  The US might well follow the demographic patterns already carved out by Japan, most of Europe, and other developed nations: an aging and possibly shrinking population.

For higher education, we will continue to face a fundamental pressure on the traditional-age undergraduate population.  As I and others have been saying for years, this has profound implications on college and university teaching, recruitment, and funding.

On the flip side, the Post article concludes with the suggestion that the US might invest more in education, in order to increase economic productivity.

John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health… said that some other wealthy countries, such as Japan and Germany, are grappling with low fertility rates, and there’s a lot to learn about how they have managed their smaller workforce to maintain high productivity.

“The emphasis should not just be on the number of people but their productivity. So we have to invest in education to enhance the productivity of younger individuals to compensate for reduction in numbers,” Rowe said.

This might not work well, however, given enrollment challenges and widespread anxiety about education costs.  Americans might not buy the idea of spending more on education, especially as other demands (health care, senior services, crime, roads, etc.) compete for non-plentiful dollars.  I’m not convinced most of the nation is ready to pay higher taxes to send a larger population to more colleges and universities. But I could be wrong.  We might see a doubling down on the modern call that “everyone needs college,” if this argument is persuasive.

We might also see more calls for Americans (i.e., women) to have more children, as I’ve noted previously.  One sign of this comes from a New York Times opinion writer. In a column comparing birthrates in Europe (low, falling) and Africa (high) Ross Douthat calls for European women to start having more children: “anyone who hopes for something other than destabilization and disaster from the Eurafrican encounter should hope for a countervailing trend, in which Europeans themselves begin to have more children.”


This would not forestall the near-inevitable northward migration, but it would make it easier to assimilate immigrants once they arrived — European economies would be stronger, ethnic polarization would not fall so dramatically along generational lines, and in politics youthful optimism and ambition might help counteract the fear and pessimism of white Europeans growing old alone.

There’s a lot to unpack there, starting with silence on ramping up education instead of babies, as well as a touch of intergenerational struggle.  But Douthat then immediately undermines his own call by adding:

Of course government efforts to raise the Western birthrate, France’s included, have been no more obviously successful than Western-sponsored efforts to cut birthrates elsewhere in the world.

I’m not sure where he wants to go with this.  Possibly he’s hoping for a cultural shift, or at least a religious one.  I doubt that most Americans will make that shift, especially since so many women are working.  Douthat is coming from a religious angle, I think, yet rising generations are less likely to be religiously affiliated.

Educators need to follow this closely.

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2 Responses to American birthrates decline again

  1. Malcolm Brown says:

    Bryan thanks for this and your earlier post on student debt. Both are helpful and insightful.

    I would agree they are momentous in import and need to be a major consideration as we attempt to chart a course for the future of higher ed. Makes we wonder a bit about whether change in higher ed is similar to climate change in one respect: it’s more urgent than most think.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a good and disturbing comparison, Malcolm. Anecdotally I can extend it a bit further: I find many academic audiences unwilling to talk or think about these issues, akin to how climate change still enjoys little media traction.

      (And thank you.)

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