Beating the Kindy Cutoff

Joshua Gans and I have a few papers showing that the timing of births responds to financial incentives, lucky dates, inauspicious dates, and even obstetricians’ conferences. But perhaps we should be relieved to know that parents aren’t perfectly strategic.

Suburban Legend: School Cutoff Dates and the Timing of Births
Stacy Dickert-Conlin & Todd Elder (Michigan State University)

Many states require children to reach five years of age by a specified calendar date in order to begin kindergarten. We use birth certificate records from 1999 to 2004 to assess whether parents systematically time childbirth before school cutoff dates to capture the option value of sending their child to school at a relatively young age, thereby avoiding a year of child care costs. Testing for discontinuities in the distribution of births around cutoff dates, we find no evidence that the financial benefits influence the timing of birth. Similarly, we find no systematic discontinuities in average mothers’ characteristics or babies’ health outcomes around cutoff dates. Timing in the neighborhood of school cutoffs occurs only when the cutoffs coincide with weekends or holidays, which may have implications for recent research that assumes birth dates in the neighborhood of cutoffs are essentially randomly assigned.

One plausible explanation is that parents aren’t very forward-looking. But another (which Dickert-Conlin and Elder discuss) is that high-income parents are increasingly holding their children back a year (“redshirting”), so the option value of being able to get your child into school a year earlier is pretty low. The available evidence seems to suggest that on average, redshirting your child is a mistake – but that doesn’t stop it happening with increasing frequency.

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5 Responses to Beating the Kindy Cutoff

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    There is an alternate theory. People engage in potentially reproductive activities at random, pregnancy occurs somewhat at random and the gestation period in approximately 40 weeks long plus or minus a few days. Trying to manage all of that to get into kinder by a given date is difficult. Parents go on waiting lists for school etc. after the pregnancy period begins (and so even after the child is born). This theory would have them doing so before the pregnancy occurs.

    I can imagine the local school putting a notice “Okay people we got an unexpected vacancy in four years time. You’ll better get abonkin’.” 🙂

  2. Cathy says:

    Hehehe. That was exactly what I was thinking, Sinclair. Another possibility is that economically rational types don’t reproduce in the first place, as children in our society are an economic burden, not a benefit (at least, to their parents, that is).

  3. ChrisPer says:

    Alternatively, consider HOW people get information to be able to act on it. No media sources push stories about how to get advantages by timing births this way. Very few are interested, and very few would bother for the supposed advantage.

    This is in contrast to other behaviours – moving to a catchment area for a good state school, getting pregnant for the baby bonus or having another child so the increased welfare pays car repayments (if you think this is a myth, thats what the mother of my foster brother did).

    People adopt profit-seeking behaviours for various reasons, but the example of knowledgeable others and telling stories about the behaviour that show the way are among the strongest. In this instance, “the market is not perfectly informed”.

  4. haniberi says:

    It is difficult to time conception within such a narrow frame. Even if folk try the “going at it like rabbits with limbs in all the right position and having followed the diet promoted by that Harvard public health guy technique”. And, with women now being older when they seek to fall pregnant, I imagine it is even more difficult to ‘control’.

  5. Patrick says:

    Well, Cathy, I’m sure Andrew will tell you for himself but most economically rational people are capable of making at least approximate calculations of non-monetary utility, and that when they do, the find the the opposite of your hypothesis.

    I think ‘redshirting’ is a terrible idea – our kids start school too late and learn too little as it is. I also think this study reveals more about real discount rates than anything else.

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