The Effect of Compulsory Schooling Laws on Teenage Births
Compulsory schooling until age 16 reduces the probability of a birth before age 20 by 4.7 percent.
Teenage motherhood has been associated with an array of negative outcomes, such as lower educational attainment, lower lifetime income, higher welfare dependence, and higher rates of crime among both mothers and their children. However, the determinants of teenage motherhood are poorly understood; as a result, it is not clear that government policies can have an effect on teenage childbearing.
In Fast Times at Ridgemont High? The Effect of Compulsory Schooling Laws on Teenage Births (NBER Working Paper No. 10911), authors Sandra Black, Paul Devereux, and Kjell Salvanes use data on the Norwegian population collected by Statistics Norway and samples from the decennial U.S. Census to examine whether changes in compulsory schooling laws affect the incidence of teenage childbearing. The authors find that compelling a girl to stay in school until age 16 reduces the probability of a birth before age 20 by 0.008 in the United States and 0.006 in Norway. In each country, 17 percent of the women in the sample had a child as a teenager, implying that compulsory schooling until age 16 reduces the probability of a birth before age 20 by 4.7 percent in the United States and by about 3.5 percent in Norway.
Close examination of the data suggests that the U.S. laws affected whites most strongly, and that the laws in both countries had a stronger impact in urban areas. Evidence on the timing of the births in the sample suggest that the incarceration effect, "the fact that educational attendance reduces time available to engage in risky behavior," is at best weakly associated with birth outcomes. The authors conclude that other mechanisms likely influence fertility behavior and that "policy interventions to increase female education at the lower tail of the educational distribution may be an effective means of reducing rates of teenage childbearing."
Compulsory schooling requirements in the United States vary by state; between 1924 and 1974, the years relevant to the authors' sample data, states changed the minimum dropout age, the minimum number of years of required schooling, the age at which children must be enrolled in school, the minimum age for a work permit, and the number of years of schooling required before a work permit would be issued.
In Norway, municipalities were required to adopt a nationwide educational reform between 1959 and 1973, and different municipalities implemented the reform at different times during this period. In schools operating under the old system students could drop out at age 14. The new system required nine years of education beginning at age 7, had a minimum dropout age of 16, and increased education by 0.12 of a year on average
-- Linda Gorman