But a relatively small number of students at these urban arts high schools are low-income. According to a review of data from U.S. News & World Report, these schools have significantly fewer percentages of low-income students than do the traditional public schools in their respective city. That suggests that other phenomena, on top of the other “practicality” and “personal development” factors Kinzie highlighted, are at play.
For teenagers who attend intensive performing-arts schools, the promise of the “full college experience” is often even more seductive than it is for traditional high-schoolers. Because of the narrow focus at arts high schools like LACHSA and Booker T. Washington, students often miss out on a lot of opportunities they might find at more standard public schools: Sports teams, big games, party culture, and many other high school touchstones are typically absent from these institutions. To compensate for the lack of those experiences, students may seek them out in college.
Princess Broussard, a college counselor at LACHSA, estimated that one in four students in each of the school’s graduating classes says they’re looking for that sort of environment; Abby McKelvey, a college counselor at Baltimore School for the Arts, said the number there was about one in 10. Personally, I don’t even like sports, but a school with a football team was just about nonnegotiable for me.
“I've met a ton of students over the years who [lived] close enough that they could commute to campus … but they wanted to come on campus to have what in their mind is that full college experience,” said Jamie Workman, an assistant professor at Valdosta State University who studies the role of choice in education. “They wanted to live in the residence halls. They wanted to get involved with student organizations or join a fraternity or a sorority. They wanted to go to those Friday night parties and all the crazy things that college students do. I definitely think there is a concept in a lot of students’ heads of what going to college means.”
Movies, marketing materials, and the like convey college as providing an unlimited number of options for students, and this prospect can be especially appealing to teens whose intensive high-school education has the unintended side effect of feeling slightly suppressive. There really isn’t that much time for other activities when one’s would-be extracurricular at any other school becomes an all-consuming pseudo-major.
Of course, arts-high-school students can still study the arts at a large public institution in, say, the University of California system (almost 20 percent of LACHSA’s 2015 graduating class chose a UC school, according to Broussard)—but they can also choose to study anthropology or history or biology. Elpus’s research has found that arts students pursue STEM majors in college at the same rates as students without any arts-education background. His findings weren’t specific to performing arts-based high schools, but they show that, in general, students aren’t disadvantaged when they elect to take the arts as opposed to another science or math class.