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Education’s Influence as a Determinant of Crime

An interesting application of economic research is involved in analyzing crime as determined though the distribution of education across individuals and regions. The externalities associated with increased education are considered to be positive, however direct observation and collection of relevant data is often not possible. As such, positive externalities such as reduced crime can often not be directly linked to increased levels of education. Empirical evidence however highlights significant correlation between increased education levels and reduced crime.

The comprehensive model of participation in illegal activities can be attributed to Becker (1968) and Ehrlich (1973) with specific work on the relationship between crime and education by Ehrlich (1975). The implications are that increased levels of education in society have a positive effect by reducing crime, focusing on the opportunity cost of committing crime versus potential labour market opportunities. These labour market opportunities are in turn influenced directly on education levels of individuals. As individuals accumulate education and labour market prospects become higher, the opportunity cost of illegal activities are higher. With the risk of being imprisoned and forgoing these earnings, marginal individuals with the potential of committing crimes will prefer to not commit crimes with higher earnings in the labour market outweighing earnings from illegal activities.

One of the most comprehensive studies on the influence education has on crime is attributed to Lochner and Moretti (2003), who find that educational attainments are highly significant in determining incarceration rates. These findings are obtained by examining changes in mandatory school attendance with statistical tests rejecting reverse causality. This study confirms the positive impact that increased education has in the form of reducing crime. Further, significant differences in educational attainments for white and black men are found, with these differences accounting for 23% of the white-black gap in incarceration for men.

These results indicate that educational policy has a significant role to play when it comes to crime prevention. Turning would-be-criminals into non-criminals begins at an early age, suggesting that education and crime policies should be planned and researched taking into account the most volatile stages of individuals as they progress through schooling. Some of the most successful programs for education policy are those focusing on young primary and secondary school aged children especially those of lower income or underprivileged groups.

The HighScope Perry Preschool Study is one such well known case that examined the impact of early childhood education for children born into poverty and those at high risk of failing in school. Starting at ages 3 and 4, children were randomly assigned into an experimental and control group. Those in the experimental group received high quality preschool education based on participatory learning while the other group did not. The comprehensive study tracked these individuals over their life time. Follow up interviews found that at age 40, those who participated in the preschool program were more likely to have higher wages, graduate from high school, and commit fewer crimes compared to their counterpart. Although these results signal the benefits of early education on crime prevention, the small sample and experimental nature of the program make generalizations difficult. 



Jacob Macdonald
Nova SBE

Becker, Gary S. 1968. “Crime and punishment: An economic approach.” Journal of Political Economy, 76,

Ehrlich, Isaac. 1973. “Participation in illegitimate activities: A theoretical and empirical investigation.” Journal of Political Economy, 81, 521-565

Ehrlich, Isaac (1975), “On the relation between education and crime.” In Education, Income, and Human Behavior, 313-338, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc

Lochner, Lance and Enrico Moretti. 2004. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports” The American Economic Review, Vol. 94, No. 1, pp. 155-189

University of Chicago Crime Lab – Education Policy:

HighScope Perry Preschool Study:


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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