“The big decline is in the Catholic schools”

Report: Demographic shift of middle-class Catholics out of urban centers and sharp decrease in numbers of priests, nuns and religious orders main culprits in large drop in enrollmenT

(image from localeducationnews.com)

The complexion of America’s private school sector has undergone massive changes over the past half-century, driven mostly by a decline in Catholic school enrollment, according to a major new report published in the journal Education Next. The authors find that middle-class families in particular have been leaning away from private schools for several decades.

Written by renowned researchers Sean Reardon of Stanford and Richard Murnane of Harvard, the report uses census data, longitudinal studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, and family surveys to create a picture of trends in private elementary school enrollment since the 1960s.

Overall, attendance in both religious and nonreligious private elementary schools has fallen from a peak of 15 percent of the total K-8 population in 1958 to just under 9 percent in 2015.

U.S. Census and the Current Population Survey (image from The 74)

That shrinkage has occurred at different rates among different student populations and regions of the country, but one phenomenon has stood out: A form of income segregation is influencing the demographics of the private sector. More affluent families, especially in the South, are increasingly sending their children to non-religious private schools, while their low- and middle-income peers are more likely to choose some form of parochial education.

“The big decline is in the Catholic schools — and that’s a huge decline,” Murnane told The 74 in an interview. “In 1960, 9 out of 10 kids who were in a private elementary school were in a Catholic school. That’s now 4 in 10.”

What explains the decline in market share commanded by Catholic elementary schools? The departure of white families from urban centers, sometimes called “white flight,” is one factor. The traditional constituency for Catholic education was urban, middle- or working-class whites, often the children of Irish, Polish, Italian, and Lithuanian immigrants. As they decamped to the suburbs in huge numbers beginning in the 1960s, the number of parents willing to pay Catholic school tuition plummeted.

That aggravated what Murnane deemed the biggest problem faced by Catholic schools and their supporters: vanishing funds for scholarships and operations. At the same time the schools were losing a large group of potential customers, they were also deprived of cheap labor by the sharp decrease in the number of priests, nuns, and religious orders.

“It used to be that dioceses contributed significant amounts of money to support private schools in low-income parishes,” he said. “They don’t have that money anymore, in part because attendance is down and in part because settling these sexual abuse cases cost tens of millions of dollars in dioceses like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. That money used to be available to support low-income parishes. Now it’s not.”

Full story at The 74.


  1. Out where I live Catholic school enrollment is declining severely. Schools are barely at half capacity. They are trying to entice new families to enroll by offering 1/2 off tuition for the first year. It’s not working. I foresee the death of Catholic schools, except for high schools in wealthy areas where the Catholic high schools are not Catholic in any meaningful sense, they’re just elite private prep schools for the rich that have a Catholic past and name. The golden days of the church in America are in the past and fading fast. Bishop Barron’s videos aren’t going to save things.

  2. Deacon Craig Anderson says:

    I think another factor is the fact that so many “Catholic” schools are no longer truly, seriously Catholic. When school staff often oppose the teachings of Christ and His Church and live contrary to those teachings, why sacrifice for such parish schools (which are really no longer parish schools influenced by a pastor, but private subsidized schools on the same “campus”)?

    • You hit the nail right on the head, I believe that is another reason why there are more “Nones” (people who do not belong to any church) in the United States. When they see people who behave themselves and try to follow Church teaching denigrated, and those who live decadently rewarded, they see no reason to belong to those churches. It is like putting ones money down a rabbit hole.

    • Steve Seitz says:

      Deacon Anderson,
      You’re correct. My wife and I send our son to a Catholic school which is fully Catholic. Parents are involved in the school and they don’t have any problem with declining enrollment.

      Our problem is with the local Catholic high schools. Because none of them excel in having a Catholic culture, there’s an excellent chance that we’ll be sending him to a free public school.

  3. Since most Dioceses do NOT publish financial data, one can not tell the impact of abuse settlements on contributions to education in poorer parishes. I suspect a major part of the problem is that the cost of Catholic education is much higher, adjusted for inflation, now compared to fifty years ago. Parents find it harder to pay the tuition. Further they may question the value of Catholic education when competing with academically excellent public schools for which their taxes are already paying.

  4. We have two generations of “Catholic’s” that know nothing about their faith More than anything the Diocese must open more school’s anyway they can or Church will disappear

  5. Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. says:

    Well, there’s another factor, perhaps the most significant one, that is not mentioned: Catholics are having fewer and fewer children. Note the trend for lower-income families, though. It has held constant. That’s because of immigration not indigenous birth rates.

    • OK, that is likely true, so what’s your conclusion? I suggest it’s more about the money. When I went to Catholic school in the 1960’s, it was free. If Catholic schools were free today, they would be full.

    • The nation’s low birth rate is a factor all over the country. In small states, they are consolidating school districts because there are not enough kids to fill a classroom, even in public schools. People are getting marries in their thirties now and not having kids.

  6. In our area, the public charter schools have recruited the students who would have attended a Catholic school in previous years. One of the charter schools operates in what was formally a Catholic school. The decline of the Catholic schools will continue I fear.

  7. Linda Maria says:

    Before Vatican II, all Catholic parents were strongly encouraged to send their children to Catholic school. It was also affordable, for most families. The Catholic religion was once very strong, and very serious! Since Vatican II, there have been too many problems– and the Catholic Faith is no longer viewed as seriously, as it once was. Many Catholic schools are morally-corrupt, and no longer practice the Faith. Many Catholics of today, are not even sure what their religion is all about, as they have little good religious and moral training in their Faith, and poor spiritual leadership– with a very weak and confusing Pope!

  8. Fed up with bishops says:

    Another factor today is the ongoing complete, total, utter lack of credibility the church has. Are you all keeping up with the Cardinal McCarrick story? Rod Dreher at the American Conservative has been publishing correspondence and reports detailing the whole sordid thing, even reprinting sickening words written by McCarrick about the priest homosexual abuse scandal condemning it when he was guilty of the same thing himself. The church has zero credibility because priests and bishops have bankrupted their moral stature by the gay sex scandals that keep recurring. Who is going to go to church or enroll their kids in Catholic schools when the Church is a total moral and hierarchical mess?

  9. My stay-at-home wife and I tried to keep our five children in catholic schools, but various factors have forced us to home-school. It has not been easy, but we’re accepting the cross.
    • Less money available (wage stagnation, higher taxes, food & rent, med/insurance, etc);
    • Local parish school “CINO” (no dedicated religious, mostly non-catholic lay teachers, dreadfully poor catechesis, state-approved godforsaken curriculum, high tuition);
    • Government schools a mess (godforsaken curricula, forced vaccinations, SSRI-induced shootings, etc.)
    It’s been very difficult, but it’s a burden that’s been forced upon us.

  10. I am the product of two Catholic grammar schools, Catholic high school and Catholic college, all in the New York City area. In my opinion, the greatest cause in the decrease in Catholic school population is the huge decrease in sisters, brothers and priests subsequent to Vatican II. I was in college when Vatican II took place. It was followed by the mass abandonment of their religious life by sisters, brothers and priests. Many of the teachers I had in all of these institutions left, most got married, some to people that I knew. Without religious teachers, tuition costs went sky high, and many families could not afford the tuition. End of story.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Our parish school was going to be closed because of lack of enrollment, but the parents, teachers and students launched their own enrollment campaign and saved the school.
    Our kids have attended Catholic schools. Some are better than others. The principal is important. The teachers are important. Our parish did not have a school, so we went school shopping (not many choices). There was one school that we did not enroll in because when we were interviewing, the principal was really nice to us, but when we brought our son to the school, she bullied him, right in front of us. I’ve heard she is gone now.

COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.

Speak Your Mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.