Estimating the impact of women’s education on fertility, child mortality, and empowerment when schooling ain’t learning

We use literacy data available in the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) for 129 survey rounds, across 54 countries, to estimate the impact of female basic education– which we define as completing six years of schooling and acquiring literacy–on a woman’s fertility, survival of her children, and (for the 69 DHS rounds where it is available) a measure of the woman’s empowerment. First, our estimates of the impact of basic education on these three outcomes are 3 to 4 times larger than the standard approach that estimates the impact of schooling. For instance, using OLS and data on completed years of schooling produces estimates that female basic schooling (completing six years of schooling) reduces child mortality by 21 percent, whereas our results which use IV techniques and data on both schooling and literacy suggest a reduction in child mortality from female basic education of 68 percent. Second, our results suggest that achieving literacy accounts for 36 percent of the child survival improvement, 50 percent of the reduction in fertility, and 80 percent of the increase in female empowerment from basic education. These results suggest that (a) the non-pecuniary returns from female education are even much higher than previously believed and (b) the returns to investing in cost-effective actions to improve learning outcomes, such as literacy acquisition, of girls already in school could be very high, higher than investing in expanding the years of schooling.