November 12, 2020 | Press Release

The Desire for Children Amongst Highly Educated US-American Women

Not every US American woman has as many children as she would like to have. ©

Women with college degree in the US are less likely than others to become mothers at all, even if they wanted a large family when they were young. When these women start a family, however, they have the most children in the study comparison, found Natalie Nitsche in her recent paper.

How are the desire for children at a young age, the level of education, the timing of first marriage and the actual number of children of one's own by age 43 related for men and women in the USA? Natalie Nitsche, research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, and a colleague investigated this complex interaction and published the study in the journal Demography.

The researchers discovered two crucial connections. First, women with college degree with the desire to have many children at a young age are less likely to become mothers at all than less educated women who wanted a large family. Second, the timing of the first marriage influences for both men and women whether they become parents at all.

"The majority of women who later graduated from college wanted a large family in their youth. Among all those who wished for many children, however, these women rarely become mothers at all," says Natalie Nitsche. "By the way, men with a high desire for children do not have this difference according to their level of education," adds Nitsche.

Less inclined to do things halfway: many children or no children at all

However, when these women become mothers, they have the most children in the study comparison. “These women may be less inclined to do things halfway. They seem to decide either to have an extended family or to not have children at all,” says Nitsche.

For their study, the researchers evaluated data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. In this representative longitudinal survey, several thousand Americans born between 1957 and 1964 regularly reported, among other things, on their desire to have children, their educational attainment and their labor market experience. In the analyses, the researchers used data from more than 5,000 respondents and divided them into four different groups according to the highest level of education. They also divided the same respondents into three groups according to their desire to have children at a young age depending on whether they stated when they were between 14 and 18 either no children/one child, two children ,or at least three children,.

Middle-aged parents: Social norms seem more important than biological factors

Whether you are a man or a woman, people who marry for the first time or are in a steady partnership for the first time after age 30 are significantly less likely become a parent at all. “It seems that biological factors play a smaller role than societal influences,” says Nitsche.  Even though men can have children longer than women, men still do not become parents much more often than women when the first stable partnership occurs after the age of 35. Whether these findings also apply to European countries or to men and women born after 1965 remains to be seen in further studies.

Original publication

Nitsche, N., Hayford, S.: Preferences, Partners, and Parenthood: Linking Early Fertility Desires, Marriage Timing, and Achieved Fertility. Demography (2020) DOI: 10.1007/s13524-020-00927-y

Authors and Affiliations

Natalie Nitsche, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

Sarah R. Hayford, Department of Sociology and Institute for Population Research, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Author of the paper

Deputy Head (Fertility & Well-Being)

Natalie Nitsche


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.