Catterall, J. S., Dumais, S. A., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.


This study examines the relationship between participation in the arts and academic and civic outcomes for teenagers and young adults. The researchers analyze data from four large-scale, longitudinal, national data sets to examine how a student’s level of arts participation during the K-12 years is related to his/her academic achievement and civic engagement in the post-secondary years. The researchers compare outcomes for students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds with low participation in arts activities, low SES youth with high participation in arts activities, high SES youth with differing levels of arts engagement, and the general population. The researchers find that students with high participation in the arts outperform peers with low arts participation on measures of academic and civic outcomes in the examined data sets. This relationship, they find further, is particularly robust for students from low SES backgrounds.

Key Findings:

  • Positive Impact on Academic Achievement and Civic Behavior The researchers found that low-SES teens and young adults with past high-arts participation show better academic outcomes than do their low-arts, low-SES peers. To differing degrees, the researchers found that high arts participation is positively connected with “school grades, test scores, honors society membership, high school graduation, college enrollment and achievement, volunteering, and engagement in school or local politics,” as well as with higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities in high school and college (p. 24). “High school students who earned few or no arts credits,” for example, “were five times more likely not to have graduated than students who earned many arts credits” (p.14).
  • Improved Long-Term OutcomesThe researchers found that intensive arts experiences for at-risk youth correlated to academic and civic engagement levels close to or exceeding those of the general population, levels much higher than the rates for low-SES students who have limited arts participation. Additionally, the researchers found that aspirations for college attainment and professional careers are positively related to arts participation, and that adults with previous arts engagement are more likely to be in occupations that require post-secondary education.
  • Biggest Benefits for At-Risk Students The strongest relationship the researchers identified between arts engagement and academic outcomes was for high-arts/low-SES youth, however, the researchers also found a positive relationship between arts and increased civic participation for high-SES students.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings of this study suggest that arts education may provide a significant pathway to improving outcomes for disadvantaged youth. This deserves the attention of decision makers on many levels, from parents to federal policymakers. Increased participation in the arts may be part of a larger solution to closing the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.


This longitudinal study identifies arts involvement through review of large-scale longitudinal datasets, which included interviews, academic transcripts, assessments, and questionnaire and survey data. The information in the datasets was drawn from 71,610 five to 27 year-olds. Based on a statistical analysis of the data, the term “low-SES” youth represents the bottom quarter of wealth in the sample, and “high-SES” represents the top quarter of the sample. Similarly, the terms “low arts engagement” and “high arts engagement” also represent the top and bottom quartile of the population, based on a rating system that assigned varied numbers of points for levels of participation in arts activities (e.g., daily dance rehearsal was given more points than a once a week dance class, being the president of a school art club was given more points than being a member of a school art club). The researchers conducted statistical analysis to compare academic and civic outcomes for students from different quartiles of arts engagement and socio-economic status.

Limitations of the Research:

This study finds that high participation in the arts is associated with positive academic and civic outcomes for all students and particularly for those from low SES backgrounds. The methods, however, do not allow for an assessment of whether high participation in the arts causes these positive outcomes. Additional research is needed to further clarify the nature of the established relationship and factors that may be related to or might help to further explain the findings of this study.

Questions to Guide New Research:

While the data show that there is an increase of educational attainment and academic success (both predictors of professional success), what are the longer-term financial outcome and job satisfaction for people with high-arts vs. low-arts engagement during the K-12 years?

How do variations in arts program quality affect the measures of student achievement and civic engagement?

Is there an optimal age for art participation’s impact on long term success?

Are there differences between areas of artistic disciplines and areas of student outcomes?

What factors in arts education contribute to academic and social gains?

How would controlling for the demographics of the schools that students attend affect the findings of this study?