MORE EDUCATION, LESS CRIME: Swedish evidence of the impact of years of schooling on criminal convictions and incarceration

The more time that young men stay in school, the less likely they are to turn to crime at any point in their lives. That is the central conclusion of research by Professors Randi Hjalmarsson, Matthew Lindquist and Helena Holmlund, published in the September 2015 Economic Journal. Their study finds that additional years of compulsory schooling lead to significant decreases in the chances that men ever engage in criminal activity as well as in the severity and intensity of offences.

The researchers analyse Sweden''s compulsory school reform implemented in the 1950s and 1960s, which extended compulsory schooling from seven to nine years. They examine the impact of the reform on the schooling and crime outcomes of a sample of over 400,000 Swedes born between 1943 and 1954. Among the findings:

· Men and women with at least one conviction have 0.7 and 0.4 years less schooling, respectively, compared with men and women without a criminal record.

· The Swedish school reform increased average educational attainment by 0.33 years for men and 0.20 years for women.

· An additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of male conviction by almost 7% and the likelihood of a prison sentence (which is determined by the severity of the offence and an individual''s criminal history) by about 15%.

· Despite the negative correlation between women''s schooling and criminality, the researchers do not find evidence of a causal relationship.

The policy implications are two-fold, the researchers conclude:

''First, policy decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis of the education system should consider the value of non-pecuniary costs and benefits.

''Second, policy-makers should consider indirect channels for decreasing crime, rather than just focusing on the likelihood and severity of punishment.''


Previous research in both the United States and the UK has shown that criminals are less educated than non-criminals. In this study, a team of Swedish researchers demonstrates that the same stylised fact is true in Sweden.

Economic theory could easily explain such a negative education-crime relationship. Education increases wages, and therefore, the opportunity costs of committing a crime – the potential legitimate income a criminal is sacrificing while engaged in crime or its consequences (for example, prison). If criminals are rational decision-makers who respond to incentives, then the increased opportunity cost of crime resulting from higher education should lower crime.

Empirically, such a negative education-crime relationship may be observed in the data even if education has no causal impact on crime. It could simply be a by-product of unobserved individual characteristics, such as low ability or low risk aversion, which both increase the chances of engaging in crime and decrease educational attainment.

The researchers overcome this empirical challenge by focusing on the increase in schooling that resulted from the Swedish compulsory school reform, which was implemented across municipalities in the 1950s and 1960s. These additional years of schooling are independent from any individual''s characteristics; thus, any relationship between the additional schooling induced by the reform and future criminal activity can be interpreted as causal.

One of the unique features of this study compared with previous research is that it uses micro-data, representing about 70% of the Swedish population. A second unique feature is the researchers'' endeavour to identify carefully the timing of this historical reform across municipalities using both public documents and observed discontinuities in the data.

The main findings of the study indicate that more schooling has a robust and significant negative effect on the likelihood of male conviction (minus 6.7%) and incarceration (minus 15.5%). The magnitude of the effects for men is substantial, and in line with previous estimates seen in the United States and the UK.

''The Effect of Education on Criminal Convictions and Incarceration: Causal Evidence from Micro-data'' by Randi Hjalmarsson, Matthew Lindquist and Helena Holmlund is published in the September 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Randi Hjalmarsson is at the University of Gothenburg. Matthew Lindquist is at Stockholm University, SOFI. Helena Holmlund is at IFAU.