Does higher education reduce crime?

One argument made for higher education – at least when arguing for more funding – is that it helps reduce crime. A visiting OECD official recently made the reduced crime claim for higher education, citing Walter McMahon.

Graduates are likely to have quite low conviction rates – I have not been able to find precise statistics, but in 2009 only 14% of 25-34 year old prisoners had completed year 12, compared to 63% of the general population in 2006.

But it seems more plausible to me that graduates are people who were always at relatively low risk of offending, regardless of whether or not they pursued higher education. This low risk would be a function of better socialisation, and the ability to earn a reasonable income without breaking the law. Education is likely to have whatever preventive effects it is going to have well before higher education.

The broad historical trends would also seem to count against any straightforward link between higher education and crime. Australia’s crime statistics don’t lend themselves to easy long-term time series, but crime and education both escalated significantly from the 1970s. The figure below shows crime and higher education attainment increasing from the mid-1990s to around the turn of the century, before crime started trending down again (as also occurred in other countries).

Sources: Education and Work, Australian Institute of Criminology

My theory would be that a third factor at least partly explains both trends, though I think crime is a more multi-factor phenomenon than higher education. The collapsing labour market opportunities for men with little education over the last 30-40 years made both crime and higher education more profitable relative to the alternative of welfare/insecure jobs. So crime and higher education both increased.

But there is no direct relationship between crime and higher education, and increasing the latter will not decrease the former.

5 thoughts on “Does higher education reduce crime?

  1. I agree collapsing labour market opportunities for men with little education is the key, but my guess is that the link is not necessarily as direct as low opportunity cost. I would guess most crime is committed by people in their late teens and early 20s who would have displayed behavioural problems much earlier, well before they faced poor job prospects. I think lack of job opportunities for men (and growing job opportunities for women) have probably contributed – along with the easier availability of divorce and favourable settlement outcomes for women – to rising crime rates by way of increasing family breakdowns and loss of positive male role models.


  2. Geez, crime must have been pretty rampant before they opened universities. Anyway, the degree-factories (unis) have been handing out degrees like no tomorrow for the last 20 years, and I don’t see no connection. So yeah, one big furphy -Bang on Andy.

    But I do disagree with your point about a reduction in well paying jobs for the unskilled men. i.e. You don’t need much in the way of skills to pick up empty beer glasses in Kalgoolie, and they’re paying those folk a motza !


  3. there is no direct relationship between crime and higher education

    I think that fellow who wrote ‘Freakonomics’ found a relationship between decreased crime and increased abortion.


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