Academic and Civic Benefits

Statistical data on the benefits of an arts education—especially for at-risk students

  • Do students who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically?
  • Do students who have arts-rich experiences in school become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering, and generally participating at higher rates than their peers?

A report by James Catterall, Susan Dumais and Gillian Hampden-Thompson titled The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth answers these questions and does so against the backdrop of convincingly large data sets. Leveraging four large national databases, The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth analyzed the academic and civic behavior outcomes of teenagers and young adults who have engaged deeply with the arts in or out of school. The findings from this report are especially pertinent for at-risk students because, to control for the extra curricular arts activities oftentimes afforded affluent students, the researchers focused their analysis on teenagers who came from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. Here are just some of the eye-catching findings by the numbers for all students, but especially at-risk students:

Academic Achievement

  1. Eighth graders who had high levels of arts engagement from kindergarten through elementary school showed higher test scores in science and writing than did students who had lower levels of arts engagement over the same period.
  2. Students who had arts-rich experiences in high school were more likely than students without those experiences to complete a calculus course.
  3. High school students who earned few or no arts credits were five times more likely not to have graduated than students who earned many arts credits.
  4. High school seniors with high-arts backgrounds were nearly three times as likely as low-arts students to have worked on their school yearbook or newspaper. They were also more likely to have participated in intramural sports.
  5. Students who had intensive arts experiences in high school were three times more likely than students who lacked those experiences to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Civic Engagement

  1. High school students from low SES backgrounds with arts-rich experiences participated in student government and school service clubs at four times the rate of low-SES students who lacked those experiences.
  2. Young adults who had arts-rich experiences in high school were more likely than other young adults to have volunteered recently.
  3. Young adults who had arts-rich experiences in high school were more likely to vote and/or to participate in a political campaign. Virtually all of these differences were observed only in low-SES groups. (While this caveat may narrow the conclusions you can draw about the importance of an arts education, I find it to be an especially empowering finding. Can an arts education increase voter participation in low SES communities? Consider the implications for politicians and activists looking to increase voter turn out.)
  4. 30% of college students who had intensive arts experiences in middle school and high school chose a college major that aligns with preparation for a professional career. That figure is twice the percentage of low-arts 20-year-olds who had chosen such majors.
  5. Intensive arts involvement was found to correlate strongly with higher academic achievement—a clear precursor of many higher-paying, professionally rewarding jobs.

This report is quick to caution that it does not make the case for a causal relationship between the arts and these outcomes. With all this dutifully rigorous and academic throat clearing aside, the statistical correlations drawn from these large data sets combined with common sense make this report a convincing and empowering read. I don’t have to tell you the arts matter, but now you will have the numbers to back it up.

Source: The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies (March 2012). James S. Catterall with Susan A. Dumais and Gillian Hampden-Thompson. National Endowment for the Arts1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20506-0001