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Kenneth Elpus

School of Music professor Kenneth Elpus wins NEA grant to study the impact of arts education on youth. 

by Kelsi Loos, Office of Communications 

Talk to anyone who has been involved with the arts and they can tell you heart-warming stories about how the arts improved their lives. School of Music professor Kenneth Elpus aims to quantify those claims this summer with a study supported by the first National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) research grant.

“[People] have really deeply held personal experiences with the arts that have guided them to where they are now… we don’t know, in the research sense, how that really functions.”

Elpus will use the $23,000 NEA grant to analyze data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a massive nationally representative study tracking the psychological, physical and social development of participants from adolescence through early adulthood. He will compare arts students to those who did not study arts in areas such as school engagement, psychological adjustment, and involvement in risky behaviors.

This project is an extension of an earlier study on music education Elpus conducted with Carlos Abril, a professor at the University of Miami, which identified key social differences between music class participants and non-participants. They discovered that music students generally were white, wealthier, and their parents had more education than those who did not study music. Latinos, in particular, participated in music courses at very low rates.

Findings inspired Elpus to focus on why people take arts courses and how they can be more enticing to a wider group of students. Above all, he hopes to show how arts courses matter in the lives of students.

“I think that arts educators are really attuned to the students they have in the room but they sometimes don’t know how to articulate what it is they do for that kid,” Elpus said.

Building on his prior research, Elpus will categorize the Add Health survey respondents by how likely they were to enroll in arts courses. Those categories will allow him to compare students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Using data from records such as school transcripts, employment documents and psychological profiles, he will compare the success and wellbeing of arts students to non-arts students to determine how the lives of arts students were affected by arts education.

While the positive impact of the arts has been documented in studies based on academic achievement and psychological research, Elpus’ study is unique in its scale and methodology.

“Research in music education tends to inherit most of its methods from psychology… I’m a little bit different because I have the policy interest. My advanced methodological training was in economics and econometrics,” he said.

Additionally, the majority of previous studies look at the arts together as one large category but Elpus will evaluate the benefits of music, visual art and photography classes separately to create a more detailed picture of arts education.

With visual and performing arts programs constantly being threatened by high school budget constraints, Elpus hopes to impact education policy by providing information for educators to accurately define and quantify the benefits of their work.