Elpus, K. (2013). Arts education and positive youth development: Cognitive, behavioral, and social outcomes of adolescents who study the arts. National Endowment for the Arts.


This study examined the influence of adolescent participation in the arts on cognitive, behavioral, and social outcomes. Data were collected from two major longitudinal studies of American high school students and statistical analyses were performed in order to investigate differences between arts and non-arts students throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This study controlled for pre-existing systematic differences between students who choose to study the arts in high school and those who do not in order to produce unbiased results. The researcher found that arts participation had a wide range of positive effects. Most notable were the findings that arts students were more likely than their non-arts peers to find school engaging, to attend a postsecondary school, and to earn a four-year college degree.

Key Findings:

Arts participation in high school was found to have a positive effect on:

  • Academic outcomes and behaviors including the likelihood of being suspended, optimism about college attendance, school attachment and engagement, scores on a standardized test of vocabulary, and attendance of postsecondary schooling and subsequent degree attainment.
  • Personal outcomes and behaviors including alcohol consumption and illicit substance abuse (except for visual arts students, who were slightly more likely to have used drugs), delinquent behaviors and motivation to be sexually active in adolescence, optimism, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings seen here provide much evidence for wide-ranging and long-lasting positive impacts of arts participation on adolescents and adults. Importantly, unlike many studies that focus only on academic outcomes, this study provides a more well-rounded picture of positive youth development that includes personal, social, and behavioral factors outside of standardized test scores. That these benefits were seen to extend into adulthood further illustrates the importance of providing children with opportunities for arts participation in school.


Data for this study were obtained from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This major study consisted of four waves: an initial in-school survey and home interviews of a nationally representative sample of approximately 90,000 adolescents enrolled in grades 7-12 during the 1994-1995 academic year, followed by additional surveys in 1996, 2001-2002, and 2007-2008. Additional data on arts participation were gleaned from high school transcript information compiled and coded for approximately 12,250 students in an associated Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement study. In the current study, arts students were identified as those who had formally enrolled in at least one credit of formal arts coursework during high school. Next, factors that have been previously associated with both arts participation and the outcomes studied here and therefore might have produced biased results were controlled for using a propensity score procedure, a method of statistical analysis that makes two groups (in this case, arts and non-arts students) more comparable. The confounding factors identified in this study were sex, race, native English speaker status, scores on a standardized vocabulary test, ninth grade GPA, socioeconomic status, and score on a screening test for depression. Finally, the effects of high school art participation on a wide range of outcomes were estimated using statistical regression models.

Limitations of the Research:

This research focuses on the effects of arts participation only in high school; possible effects of early childhood arts participation or extracurricular arts activities were not examined. Analysis relied on data from 1994-2008 and as such some findings, notably those related to time spent with computers, might be outdated.

Questions to Guide New Research:

This study disaggregated data relating to participation in various sorts of art classes, and in some cases found differences between students who participated in instrumental or choral music, visual arts, theatre, or dance. Future research might examine more closely the factors that affect student choice when selecting an arts program, and the mechanisms associated with different types of arts engagement that might have led to the differences between groups. Future research might also examine the influence of out-of-school arts experiences on positive youth development, as many students do not have access to the formal arts coursework studied here depending on resource allocation in their school districts.