Art, Education, and Award Winning Research at Valparaiso University

Meshach Melton

Meshach Melton ’24, a Valparaiso University political science and economics double-major with a minor in psychology from Crown Point, Indiana has been named the winner of the American Economic Association’s Andrew Brimmer Undergraduate Essay prize for his paper “The Importance of Arts Education,” which highlights the importance and benefits of arts education in American schools while examining the shrinking budget most programs are contending with today. 

“The arts in the education system have been under attack for years, especially after the 2008-2009 financial crisis,” Meshach says. “As a result of that crisis, a lot of state governments try to use contractionary fiscal policy to try to recuperate the economy, which resulted in a lot of budget cuts, to the point that states close 45% of budget gaps through budget cuts, which resulted in over 80% of schools experiencing budget cuts.”

A euphonium player in the Valparaiso University Luce Concert Band, Meshach has significant personal experience with the way the arts can enhance the educational experience. It’s also an issue he has grown up being keenly aware of.

“My mom is a teacher. She’s always been one of my biggest inspirations in life, so I’ve always been interested in education policies,” Meshach says. “I also love the arts, I’m a musician, so it’s something that’s been on my radar for a while.”

Studying the arts is not just about nurturing a superfluous skill or hobby. According to Meshach’s research, all students who are involved in art education see a quantifiable boost to their overall test scores, a boost that students from underserved communities are deprived of. 

“The Americans for the Arts and the Brookings Institution found that art education students get roughly 93 points higher on their SAT scores,” Meshach says. “Then, when it comes to the test score gap between Black and white students, that’s about a 100-point gap. Comparing those statistics, you can infer the possibility that if Black students were receiving arts education, that may close the difference.”

Having written the original version of his award-winning paper for an economics class, Meshach received word from a faculty member that the American Economic Association prize could be a good opportunity for him to take his work to the next level. To get to that point, Meshach needed a letter of recommendation from the chair of the department, and to revise his work to meet the contest’s requirements. 

“One challenge, especially when revising my paper, was making sure that the paper constantly redirected to Black Americans, and how the decreases in arts education disproportionately affect Black Americans, which was the main point of the paper I submitted to the American Economic Association,” Meshach recalls.

According to Meshach, a student with an art program is 10% more likely to find employment, 20% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and 17% more likely to volunteer in their community. 

“It’s important for schools to have arts education, especially schools in low economic status neighborhoods,” Meshach says. “The importance of arts education goes a lot beyond what’s presented in the classroom.” 

Sara Gundersen, Ph.D., associate professor of economics, recalls Meshach’s original work in her Economics in Arts class. 

“He took two separate issues–arts funding and racial justice, and made an extremely strong argument,” Professor Gundersen says. “He not only showed that he’s able to argue effectively, but that he’s able to bring together completely different topics to do so.” 

Named after Andrew Brimmer, Ph.D., a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the award goes to an undergraduate student in the United States whose work focuses on the economic well-being of Black Americans. The student must be an economics, political science, public policy, or a related field and receives $1,000. For Meshach, finding out he had received the prize was just part of an extraordinary point in his life. 

“I was excited,” Meshach says. “It was already the greatest week of my life because I proposed to my girlfriend a couple of days before I found that out, then finding out that I had won the award was an experience.”

Today, Meshach is working as an intern in Washington D.C. as part of the Lutheran College in Washington Semester program working for Congressman David Scott. After graduation, he hopes to continue his education in graduate school, then continue following his passion for policy and legislation by working in a congressional office full-time. 

“A lifelong passion of mine is to help other people, and I felt like going a political route would allow me to do that in a way that fits with my other passions and interests,” Meshach says. 

Valparaiso University faculty are always looking for ways to help students like Meshach find and follow their passions, entering their vocations with an edge and having hands-on experiences outside the classroom. Learning, leading and thriving are core pillars of the Uplift Valpo: Our Beacon for the Journey Forward five-year plan, and can lead to opportunities for all students. 

“Talk to the professors about the things that interest you personally,” Meshach says. “Professors can give you a lot of advice on how to go about researching it or getting involved in something related to it.”