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Catholic school enrollment sees sharpest drop in nearly 50 years

The overall number of students at Catholic schools declined by more than 110,000 for the present academic year, and more than 200 schools closed after the previous school year.

(Image Credit: Wuttichai Jantarak/Shutterstock)

Washington D.C., Feb 8, 2021 / 02:30 pm (CNA).- Enrollment at Catholic schools this academic year has seen its largest drop in nearly half a century, according to a new report.

A data brief of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) showed that enrollment at Catholic schools was down 6.4% for the 2020-2021 school year—the biggest percentage drop in enrollment since 1973.

The overall number of students at Catholic schools declined by more than 110,000 for the present academic year, and more than 200 schools closed after the previous school year; these figures were included in the NCEA’s report “Catholic School Enrollment and School Closures, Post-COVID-19,” published on Feb. 8.

A large share of this decline was due to enrollment attrition at pre-Kindergarten schools.

“Of the net loss of 111,000 students to Catholic schools from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, 40% of that loss can be attributed to Pre-Kindergarten related enrollment attrition,” the NCEA said. “This mirrors similar losses in public school preschool and Kindergarten enrollment.”

Despite Catholic pre-Kindergarten schools remaining open—and national enrollment having trended “slightly upwards”—pre-Kindergarten enrollment dropped 26.6% for this academic year.

Catholic elementary education also saw a sharper decline, compared to Catholic secondary schools.

Enrollment at Catholic elementary schools was down 8.1% in 2020-2021, compared to a decrease of 2.5% Catholic secondary schools. The enrollment figures for secondary schools decreased the same amount in 2020-2021 compared to the 2019-2020 school year, but Catholic elementary schools lost nearly 5% more students this academic year than last year.

The drop in enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic far outpaces the declines that followed the Church’s 2002 clergy sex abuse crisis and the 2008 financial crisis.

Enrollment at Catholic schools dropped by 2.7% in 2003, at the height of the clerical sex abuse scandal, and by 3.5% in 2008, during the economic downturn. The NCEA does not list the reasons why students leave schools, but instead monitors total enrollment figures.

In addition, the closure of Catholic schools disproportionately affected lower-income students of color living in urban areas, the report found.

“In many cases, these underserved groups were over twice as likely to have their Catholic schools close compared to both all school closures and all communities served by Catholic schools,” the NCEA said.

This “erasure of Catholic schools” nationwide, the report added, especially in “underserved communities, amounts to a disruptive divestment of social capital and pathways of opportunity for all families.”

“It also has the added effect of decreasing the diversity of Catholic school communities that enriches all families regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or opportunity,” the report said.

According to the NCEA, there are 4,812 Catholic elementary schools and 1,169 Catholic secondary schools nationwide, which collectively serve more than 1.6 million students.

More than 90% of Catholic schools were teaching their students in-person this school year, the NCEA found–unlike many public school districts which offered virtual-only classes.

This disparity did drive some families to send their children to Catholic schools for in-person education, the report noted, but “the full story is still unfolding as Catholic schools have experienced an overall dramatic decline in enrollment and an increase in school closures.”

It is unclear if there will be a “bounce-back” in enrollment figures once the pandemic restrictions begin to lift, said the NCEA.

Although enrollment figures are down, the interest in Catholic schools does not appear to be particularly waning, they said. For this academic year, 39.7% of Catholic schools had a wait list for at least one grade, which was 11.2% higher than last year’s figure.

Due to the various social distancing restrictions, some schools have been forced to lower their capacity, thus leading to the creation of waiting lists.


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28 Comments

  1. There won’t be a “bounce-back.” Catholic schools are going extinct. Catholic education is already virtually extinct, since few Catholic schools provide an authentic Catholic education.

    • I do not think the reason for extinction will be non-authentic lessons. I believe over-all they are authentic, though clearly and thankfully not “rad trad”.

      The extinction will be due to finances. Money was, is, and will be the deciding factor. Ordained religious (nuns, brothers, priests) are no longer available to staff the schools. Lay teachers cost much more — salaries that need be reasonably competitive, health insurance, sick leave and maternal leave policies, etc.

      To support those things requires larger tuition charges, driving away parents who cannot afford it. The cycle perpetuates; higher tuition means fewer students, and fewer students means higher tuition.

      It is about money — always has been.

      • The “rad trad” schools are filled to capacity. Why is it even asked why Catholic Schools are dying out? The answer to this they already know. The Modernist heresy, and they do nothing to correct it. I know parents who joke that, “What is the best way for your child to lose their Catholic faith” the answer, “Send them to a Catholic school”. They may sound like they’re joking but they’re not.

  2. Why the surprise? These schools have not been Catholic for many years. It used to be considered a divine vocation for sisters, brothers, and priests to give their lives to teaching children their catechism, preparing them for Confession and First Communion, and forming their Faith. All of that disappeared 50 years ago. Why should Catholics support schools that now enroll large numbers of non-Catholic students and employ exclusively poorly catechized and often dissident, heretical, or even immoral teachers? The sooner that these rotten and corrupt religious orders, dioceses, and schools are closed, the better to clear the ground for the growth of traditionally and authentically Catholic ones.

    • Traditional and (your term) authentic ones are not going to happen no matter if the current schools close or don’t. The sisters, brothers, and priests no longer exist to staff them.

      The only way to stay open is with those who WILL work there — and accept salaries, benefits, and contract terms that are all less than favorable to meet their own family’s financial needs.

      • It is completely self-evident that the “sisters, brothers, and priests no longer exist to staff them”. No one disputes that, and I certainly did not. But Catholic schools were founded and are supposed to exist primarily to teach the Catholic faith to Catholic students, not to provide secular instruction parallel to public schools for non-Catholics who preferred the safety and regularity of Catholic schools. Paying public/private school-equivalent salaries and benefits to lay teachers who are poorly catechized and often dissident, heretical, or even immoral simply because they prefer to teach in nominally “Catholic” schools is absurd because they lack the basic competence that makes the schools Catholic; namely, an authentic, practiced, orthodox Catholic faith. Paying equivalent market dollar to a lay teacher without this practical Catholic faith competence not only renders the tuition unattainable by working families but also and more importantly destroys the very raison d’etre for a Catholic school’s existence. Of course the money is important, but most essential, and in fact absolutely indispensable, is the Catholic faith that the school should be teaching, and no amount of money will suffice for its absence. Keeping schools which are Catholic in name but not in fact afloat with lay teacher “salaries that need be reasonably competitive, health insurance, sick leave and maternal leave policies, etc.” serves only to perpetuate a spiritual and financial fraud on the children, their parents, and their families. After 50 years, it would appear that the charade is mercifully ending.

  3. The “erasure of Catholic schools” nationwide, the report added, especially in “underserved communities, amounts to a disruptive divestment of social capital and pathways of opportunity for all families.” This kind of language from the National Catholic Educational Association illustrates exactly why the decline of Catholic schools is happening, and why it does not matter. These secular educationists – whose annual conference in L.A. every year is an extravaganza of pro-homosexual heresy – do not have the faintest idea what a Catholic education should be.

    • I think they know exactly what a Catholic education should be. It just differs from your definition of one. Which is correct? Well, the conversation will be ongoing, as it has been for some time.

      The CEA needs to be practical. The economics of their target families, the job market for instructors, the funding from the parish or diocese, etc, all need be considered. I’m not sure they have the luxury of an ivory tower approach.

      But, should Catholic schools remain open even if staffing and funding obstacles are overcome? Is there a level of good, proper, authentic teaching that is acceptable to all? One that is not all one way or the other on the spectrum? “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” seems an appropriate thought.

      • Here’s one example of a non-Catholic teaching. She gave this teaching to her fifth grade students: “The Rosary began as a way to count.”

        • Meiron, Thanks for pointing that out. My Godson attended the Modern Catechism, I told him I wanted to know what they teach NOW! So I asked him, “Why do we go to Confession?” He was excited because he knew the answer, which was, “Because it makes us feel happy”. That was all I needed to ask, and it solidified my being an anti-Modernist “rad trad”.

        • Really not much difference what’s being taught in Catholic schools vs. public schools. Vatican II announced, “We want to be like every body else.” That was a rebellion, and what we are seeing are the consequences.

  4. BOTH PAUL & JAKE ARE RIGHT. THE SCHOOLS ARE NOT CATHOLIC. SAME CAN BE SAID ABOUT CATHOLIC(?) UNIVERSITIES. HOWEVER WE HAD PLENTY OF MONEY TO KEEP THE SCHOOLS GOING.IT WAS ALL WASTED.WHEN THE FOLKS ARE DECEIVED THE MONEY DRIES UP.THE CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WERE THE MINOR LEAGUES OF CATHOLISM JUST LIKE BASEBALL.KILL THAT SYSTEM AND YOU LOOSE.SOMEONE FORGOT THE HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH VISA VIE EDUCATION. WRONG GUYS RUNNING THE STORE.GOD BLESS US AND SAVE US ALL!

    • In some ways, Catholic universities are worse than public universities. Spout destructive ideology, then try and cloak it in the moral authority of the Church. Disgusting!

  5. “These secular educationists – whose annual conference in L.A. every year is an extravaganza of pro-homose*ual heresy – do not have the faintest idea what a Catholic education should be.”

    Since the 2013 conclave neither do I, Dr. Williams.

    • I have an answer to your last sentence: Attend only to teachings prior to 2013. End of story. Problem solved. God bless. Pray to HIM and to Mary. Ignore heretics, schismatics, apostates or fools who happen to be in positions of power. Remember to be as wise as a serpent, gentle as the dove. Godspeed.

    • Catechist Kev, I’m familiar with the annual Anaheim Convention. In our parish the head of the Catechism department who a former pastor dubbed the “Popess”, makes the yearly pilgrimage with all Catechism teachers and High school students required to attend. On one certain year in the 80’s she bought all the Catechetical books for the fall year of the parish, at a whopping cost of 27,000 in todays money that would be around 80,000. It was a blatant waste of parish funds for such worthless books. I don’t call them Catechism books at all. They were books about me, me, me, no Catholic teachings, all sugar coated with a warm huggees attitude. We thought when Archbishop Gomez who belongs to Opus Dei, became Archbishop of Los Angeles he would stop the “Den of Heretics” as dubbed by the Newspaper “The Wanderer”. But it continues, heretical as ever. They shun Traditional Catholics as a rule. One year Nuns who in full traditional habits were protesting the heresies on the sidewalk at the convention, a priest called the police and ordered them arrested, But the police defended the Nuns, saying if they did they would be violating their Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech. This year at the convention through audio Pope Francis will speak to the LGBT community. I can only imagine it will be catastrophic.

    • Put the “X” in the heresy. What? Are we so afraid of the truth that we want to sanitize the heresy? “X” belongs BACK in Homosexual Heresy. This is why we are losing. Scared to be bold in standing up for truth, and play nice-nice with evil.

  6. Three solutions to the problem:
    #1. Hire only Catholic teachers who live the faith in truth.
    #2. Stick to the mission of true Catholic schools i.e. to catechism the young so they are best prepared to evangelize the culture.
    #3. Have a minimum of 50 students per class. With adequate discipline, this is feasible. For those unable to learn in such an environment, the parents should homeschool. If class sizes were doubled, tuition would be more affordable.

    • Deacon Edward Peitler —

      #1. You will not find enough personnel to meet that criteria. The majority of Catholics, even those who are practicing Catholics, take birth control. Many, many others are divorced and remarried.

      Of course such conduct is behind the scenes, but exists in pretty large numbers. Catholics such as you desire are not all that prevalent any longer. The only option is to ignore what you cannot see, though that seems ‘settling’ at best and hypocritical at worst.

      The good or bad of that is a different issue. I take no stand on it in this reply.

      #2. Doable, but the definition of ‘mission’ is going to be controversial. The outcry to update for contemporary times will be bothersome. Again, I take no side on the issue in this reply. I simply point it out as inevitable.

      #3.Parents are not going to pay tuition and then have classes of 50 students. Small classes is a main draw for private schools — even parochial ones. While the curriculum you would like to see implemented is nice, there are not enough parents who will choose to pay tuition for that solely. Small class size has to be part of the deal.

      NOTE: Now retired, I have been a Dean and Assistant Principal at a Archdiocesan High School.

      • I would not put my K-8 child in a class with 49 other students, and I don’t care how well mannered everyone is.
        .
        High school is another matter. Depending on the class subject and how it is structured, yes, 50 could work. It would be good preparation for large university where lecture class might have 100 students.
        .
        Having said that, I did not send my children to a large university. I sent him to a small college.

    • Deacon Edward Peitler, On your first solution you say, “Hire only Catholic teachers who live the faith in truth”, that is by far what should be the teachers first required credentials. St. John Paul the Great had Papal words concerning this and he repeated it many times, he said that, “One cannot give what he does not have. For teachers of the Faith, good intentions are not good enough. One must posses the Faith and live it. Only then can a teacher of the Faith be able to transmit what he/she possesses”. Too many Catechism teachers today have only good intentions, but they do not know their Faith so they can’t live what they don’t know. Here I go again; It is the Modernist heresy that is to blame and not the teachers. This heresy is the worst in the 2000 year history of the Church. St. Pius X called Modernism, “The mother of all heresies” and it has penetrated into every nook and cranny of Christs Church. We can’t ignore it any longer.

  7. yes,although it’s true that catholic school attendance is in decline, gets more expensive every year,and hire lay teachers who may not even be catholic,the alternative,public schools leaves a lot to be desired.A lot of their teachers don’t want to teach in class,How effective is on line learning,as kids will be kids.That is why my son attends a catholic high school as we speak.

  8. It is a hard and thorny problem how to balance fair wages for teachers with doable tuition for families. I looked up our local Catholic schools: tuition for next year at one K-8 school: $6600. For the second one: $7400. For the high school: $13,000. That is a lot for people in an area where the median income is $49,000 annually. With multiple children, wow. No wonder people choose homeschooling or public schools. It is a financial necessity.

  9. Money and the expensive tuition are part of the problem, but not all. An even bigger part: the birth dirth and lack of students, even among Catholics. There are families that have more than one or two children, but honestly, it is a rather small group.
    .
    Public schools are pretty much required to enroll all who “apply.” In our town, we closed five elementary schools one year, then a sixth, then a seventh. We closed one of our three middle schools. The only reason one of the high school doesn’t close is sports and class rivalry.

    • Kathryn — birth dirth; absolutely — Catholics are practicing birth control via artificial means in huge numbers. And, collectively, they decided long ago, generations back and continuing, that there is no sin in that no matter what the institutional church preaches. As in a previous comment on this thread, I make no judgement on the right or wrong of this. I simply point out the fact-of-the-matter.

      But there is no doubt, as you write, that this ‘birth dirth’ is a contributing factor to the decline in the number of Catholic schools. When combined with the lack of ordained teaching personnel and tuition costs the only surprise is how many schools are still operating.

      I disagree with those who maintain the curriculum in Catholic schools is a major contributor to their decline in numbers. At best it is a minor issue, almost insignificant, in toto, in numbers of parents; not enough to make a difference in the existence of the Catholic school system as a whole.

      • While there are “scholarships” for a handful of lower class families. “Catholic schools” in the Northeast have become private schools for the middle upper class, catholic or not, with one or two children looking to gain admission to an exclu$ive college.

        And my Bishop is more interested in saving these schools, than saving Souls.

  10. Yet in our area, many of the top ten students have been and still achieve as such in the public high school, after completing the 8th grade at the Catholic school.

    I’ve had a public school elementary teacher tell me, somewhat proudly, “that is the same way they teach it at the Catholic school.”

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