Mass Incarceration and Stopped Convergence in Black-White Educational Attainment

56 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2022

See all articles by Sitian Liu

Sitian Liu

Queen's University - Department of Economics

Date Written: May 30, 2022


The Black-White gap in educational attainment in the U.S. narrowed between the 1960s and the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, it began to widen since the late 1980s, with Black men experiencing a greater decline than Black women in their educational attainment. This paper studies how childhood exposure to mass incarceration affects high school completion for young Black adults. To establish causality, I construct an instrumental variable for the incarceration rate, which exploits sentencing harshness across states and over years. I find that a 1 percentage point increase in the Black male incarceration rate that a young Black man was exposed to between 13 and 18 years decreases his likelihood of completing high school by 2.3 percentage points. Moreover, the negative effect is mainly driven by exposure to higher incarceration rates at the extensive margin (i.e., higher risks of incarceration conditional on arrest), rather than at the intensive margin (i.e., increased length of time served).

Keywords: Mass incarceration, criminal justice, sentencing, education, high school completion, Black-White education gap.

JEL Classification: I21, J13, K14.

Suggested Citation

Liu, Sitian, Mass Incarceration and Stopped Convergence in Black-White Educational Attainment (May 30, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Sitian Liu (Contact Author)

Queen's University - Department of Economics ( email )

94 University Avenue
Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6


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