Catholic Schools: On the Edge?

Catholic Schools: On the Edge?

The final demise of the Catholic parochial school system is only a matter of time. More than 2 million students currently attend Catholic schools down approximately 1.5% from the previous year. This 1.5% represents about 30,000 students. The number of students enrolled in Catholic schools in the U.S. reached its peak in the early 1960s with more than 5.2 million students attending. That population declined steeply in the 1970s and the 1980s, reaching about 2.5 million students by 1990. Between the years 2000 and 2013, 2090 Catholic schools closed or consolidated and the number of students continued to decline by 651,300.

The decline in enrollment has been attributed to middle-income families’ flight from urban areas, declining financial support from the Church, and higher operational costs. The glory days of the U.S. parochial schools are gone, according to a news report by the University of Notre Dame. The nuns and priests who educated generations of American Catholics are almost gone, retired or deceased. Collections and Mass attendance are down. Faculty salaries are too low while tuition and costs continue to rise. While 58% of the parochial school staff was religious in the 1960s, today only 4% are religious and 96% of the school staff are lay people. As tuition goes up to meet the rising costs, it makes the parochial education system unaffordable for many Catholic families. The average Catholic elementary school tuition rate has climbed by 69% over the past 10 years. For Catholic high schools, the rate of increase is double at 136%. The biggest issue is money. The mean elementary school tuition nationwide is $3,159 while the actual per pupil cost is $5,870. At the secondary level, the mean freshmen tuition was $8,182 while the-pupil cost was $10,228. Sadly, a Catholic education is increasingly available only to those who are wealthy enough to afford it.

The birth rate in the United States has fallen to record levels. The U.S. born Caucasian birth rate is below replacement levels but the Hispanic population has been making up for it. The National Center for Health Statistics has stated that the overall birth rate in 2011 was the lowest in the United States since 1920. Current studies seem to indicate that Catholic families are having fewer children than in the past. The reasons are numerous including rising educational levels for women, women marrying later in life, and the changing view of many American Catholics toward the practice of birth control.

Enrollment in Catholic schools nationwide declined by 12% for the 2012/13 school year. This is consistent with past enrollment drops over the prior ten year period. For a Catholic parish with a school, the economic pressure is greater than a parish without a school. The church finds itself supporting the school out of parish funds. It is reluctant to raise tuition as the result usually is a further decline in enrollment – sort a of Catch 22 situation.

Construction costs for new schools today run in the millions of dollars. The average elementary school can run close to $30 million and high schools can be nearly double that. Cafeterias, labs for physics, chemistry and biology are extremely expensive. Schools built in the 21st century must have WiFi and Internet access and libraries are now going “bookless.” A small cafeteria can run $250,000 for equipment alone and a conservative estimate to build a school basketball gymnasium runs between $350,000 and $500,000.

As the infrastructure for the current parochial school system ages and costs and expenses keep rising for things like: teacher salaries and benefits, the expensive construction of new schools, maintenance, labs, books, Internet access, on and on, the future for continuing Catholic education does not look promising. Fewer parochial schools may be built in the future but the cost of attending them will be expensive. There appears to be no way to stop the closure of many of the current Catholic elementary schools due basically to a steep drop in enrollment. Many dioceses would like to keep some of these older schools open as there is a need in the inner city, but they do not have the money to do it. Sadly, we will see our parochial school system shrink and the few remaining schools attended by only the wealthiest of Catholics.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer
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