Compulsory Schooling by Gender & Age

This weekend I’ll be at the Southern Economic Association Conference in Houston Texas. I’m organizing and chairing a session called Education Policy Impacts by Sex (you should come by and see me if you will be there too!).

Personally, I will be presenting on the impact of compulsory school attendance laws on attendance. Today I just want to share and discuss a single graph that’s not my presentation.

Prior to my research, there was already a canon of existing literature on compulsory attendance legislation (CSL) and I’ve previously written on this blog about it (attendance, CSL, and differences by sex). However, the literature had some limitations. Authors examined smaller samples, ignored gender, or ignored different effects by age.

I examine full-count IPUMS data from the 1850-1910 US censuses of whites in order to investigate the so-far-omitted margins mentioned above. Here are some conclusions:

Prior to CSL:

  • Males and females attended school at similar rates until the age of 14.
  • After 14, women stopped attending school as much as men.
    • By the age of 18, the attendance gender gap was 10 percentage points.

After CSL

  • Male and female attendance increased from the ages of 6 to 14
  • Women began attending school more than prior to CSL until about age 18.
  • After the age of 18, women experienced no greater attendance than previously.
  • But, both sexes attended school less than prior to CSL for ages 5 and younger.
  • Men began attending school less after the age of 17.
  • CSL increased lifetime attendance for both males and females

Overall, examining the impact of CSL across many ages allows us to see when and not just whether people attended more school. Previous authors would say something like “CSL increased total years of school by about 5% on average”. For men, almost all of those gains were between the ages of 6 & 16. But women experienced greater attendance from ages 6 to 18.

Additionally, examining the data by age reveals that there was some intertemporal substitution. Once it became legally mandatory for children to attend school between the ages of 6 & 14, parents began sending their younger children to school at lower rates. Indeed – why invest in education for two or three early years of life if you’ll just have to send your children to school for another eight years anyway. Older boys dropped out of school at higher rates after CSL too. Essentially, the above figure became compressed horizontally. People ‘put in their time’, but then reduced investments at non-mandatory ages.

This reveals a shortcoming of the current literature, which focuses mostly on 14 year olds. By focusing on a popular age of attendance that was also compulsory, previous authors have missed the compensating fall in attendance at other ages. Granted, the life-time effect is still positive – but it’s attenuated by a richer picture. The picture reveals that individuals were not attending school by accident. Students or their parents had in mind an amount of educational investment for which they were aiming. When children were forced to attend school at particular ages, the attendance for other ages declined.

One thought on “Compulsory Schooling by Gender & Age

  1. Scott Buchanan November 23, 2021 / 3:22 pm

    Interesting: “…Essentially, the above figure became compressed horizontally. People ‘put in their time’, but then reduced investments at non-mandatory ages.”

    Like

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