Cutting Crime Through Education: Evidence From British School-leavers

One year of extra education significantly reduces property crime – and the costs of extra schooling are outweighed by the social benefits associated with reduced crime. These are the central findings of research by Professor Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie and Sun?ica Vuji?, published in the May 2011 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study looks at the crime rates of a cohort of British school-leavers, some of whom were forced to stay in school for longer because of a legal change to the school-leaving age in 1972. It turns out that this group was less likely to engage in criminal behaviour than a slightly older cohort.

The authors calculate that a one year increase in the average age at which young men leave school generates a roughly 0.3% fall in their property crime conviction rate. When the researchers focus instead on young men with no educational qualifications, they find that a 1% reduction in the proportion of young men with no qualifications reduces property crime by between 0.85% and 1%.

The research also shows that the cost of the extra schooling is outweighed by the net social benefits of reduced property crime of £23-30 million, accrued a decade after the increase in the school leaving age. These results echo a 2004 study of US crime by Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti, which estimated a net social benefit of an extra year of schooling of about $1.4 billion, resulting from fewer violent crimes.

The difference in the two estimates comes from the fact that the US study identifies a clear impact of education on violent crime, especially murder, which accounts for 80% of the estimated crime savings. That result is not replicated in the new study, perhaps because there are too few murders in the UK to show up statistically. Furthermore, property crimes represent 70% of all crimes that occur in the UK.

When considering only property crimes that have been prevented, then the US social benefit estimate is just above $52 million or £35 million, which falls very close to the UK calculation of the social savings from property crime prevention. Since the population of England and Wales is more than five times smaller than that of the United States, this represents a very substantial social benefit per capita.

Until now, few studies have been able to establish that increasing education can cut crime. But in principle, more years in school should reduce crime by raising young people”s future earning power from legitimate work and making a criminal career less attractive. Being in school keeps potential criminals off the streets and possibly exposes them to the right sort of peers and social attitudes.

There is also evidence that a lack of education is associated with criminal behaviour. For example, studies of the US jail population in the 1990s showed that most inmates had not finished high school.

The new research concludes that the existence of a causal crime-reducing effect of education has potentially important implications for longer-term efforts aimed at reducing crime. For example, policies that subsidise schooling and human capital investment have significant potential to reduce crime in the longer run by increasing skill levels.

At the very least, the results confirm that improving education among offenders and potential offenders should be viewed as a key policy lever that can be used in the drive to combat crime.

 ”The Crime Reducing Effect of Education” by Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie and Sun?ica Vuji? is published in the May 2011 issue of the Economic Journal.

Prof Stephen Machin

Stephen is a Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics,

Olivier Marie

Maastricht University and the CEP | +31 43-388-3789 | o.marie@maastrichtuniversity.nl

Suncica Vujic

LSE | +44 207-106-1165 | s.vujic@lse.ac.uk