Cause or Effect: The Relationship Between Academic Achievement and Delinquency in America

For most students, strong academic performance ideally leads to a college acceptance and the path to a dream job. Likewise, most students begin their academic lives wanting to do well in school. Not all students, however, have the opportunity to follow this prescribed path and succeed. Many students are prevented from going down this road due to poor academic achievement and delinquency. There exists a consensus among many researchers that low academic achievement and weak bonds with schools and teachers are associated with subsequent delinquent behavior.

John P. Hoffmann, Lance D. Erickson, and Karen R. Spence of Brigham Young University present data in “Modeling the Association Between Academic Achievement and Delinquency: an Application of Interactional Theory,” with the goal of developing a model to see if reciprocal associations exist among delinquent behavior, school attachment, and academic achievement. They want to know if it is possible that delinquency can be both a cause and consequence of weakened social bonds and academic achievement. Even though the authors only find limited support for their proposed model, they note that it backs the notion that better academic achievement decreases delinquency.

Prior to this study, there had been little research on whether delinquency and academic achievement were associated reciprocally. The authors use Thornberry’s interactional theory as the basis to develop and test a model of these reciprocal associations. A core argument of Thornberry’s theory is that associations among social control variables, such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, and delinquency are dynamic and often operate in feedback loops. Few studies have looked at this mutual relationship before.

The authors note that stronger school attachments, such as improved teacher-student interactions and participation in school-sponsored activities, not only decrease the likelihood of delinquency, but also lead to greater commitment to school-based goals (i.e. good grades). There are many ways for students to invest in their futures to decrease the likelihood of delinquency, but higher grades strengthen the perceived attachments to schools most notably and thus act as the key tether between students and school.

The authors test the proposed model using data from 9,381 students from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (“Add Health”) that measured delinquency depending on answers to past involvement in vandalism, truancy, breaking and entering, fighting, selling drugs, public nuisance, and group fighting, combined with GPA data obtained from transcripts as a key variable factor. The results, using regression analysis, provide evidence that academic achievement is associated with less delinquent behavior over time, as well as with higher school attainment. Ultimately, they conclude that students who perform better are more likely to finish school than those who have lower grades. They also note that males are more likely to be delinquent than females, but also tend to have a higher school attachment.

Through the testing of the model and analysis, there is only partial support for interactional theory as the effects of delinquency are limited to an attenuating effect on subsequent school attachment – delinquency does not directly influence academic achievement.

Although the authors are able to increase the overall understanding of the associations among delinquent behaviors, academic achievement and attachment to school, they recommend that future work is needed on addressing more detailed measures of delinquency and academics. It is evident that the link between the two is not happenstance. Furthermore, the authors do not separate violent and non-violent forms of delinquency. The type of involvement, in addition to the degree of involvement, may shed more light on how academic achievement and delinquency relate to one another as well as how it impacts adult criminal behavior. By having greater understanding of these reciprocal feedback mechanisms, it could be possible that programs aimed at improving academic performance could have secondary impacts on reducing delinquency and improving the attachments which students feel towards their schools.

Feature Photo: cc/(Zhu)'
Susan Mallaney