Catholic Schools Losing Ground

Published April 1, 2001

In February, the Archdiocese of New York announced it would close the John A. Coleman Catholic High School in Hurley, New York when the academic year ends in June. The reason: declining enrollment and a projected deficit of around $4,000 for each of the school’s 200 students–more than the annual tuition of $3,700 per student.

The closing is the first step in a broader reorganization of schools in the archdiocese by New York’s newly elevated cardinal Edward M. Egan.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Catholic school officials bit the same bullet last year with the closing of St. Adalbert’s on the city’s west side. Enrollment in the area’s Catholic schools has fallen 10 percent during the past five years. Enrollment at other Christian schools in Grand Rapids fell 22 percent over the same period. On the other hand, at least eight new charter schools have opened in the city and its suburbs since 1995, drawing close to 5,000 students from Grand Rapids public and private schools.

The competition from charter schools that started in the 1990s is the latest challenge to hit U.S. Catholic schools since enrollment peaked in the 1960s.

The U.S.’s 16,288 Catholic schools and 167,000 teachers represent the largest non-government school system in the country, serving 2.6 million students. But the 5.2 percent of the K-12 population these schools served in 1994 is less than half the 12.6 percent the system served over three decades earlier, even though private schools overall have maintained an 11 to 14 percent share of K-12 enrollments since 1960.

The difference? Other private schools have increased their share of the K-12 population from just 1 percent in 1960 to 6.0 percent in 1994.

As a result, more than 3,000 Catholic grade schools have closed since 1960, and about half of all Catholic high schools have closed, relates DePaul University economics professor William Sander in his new book, Catholic Schools: Private and Social Effects.

Sander points out that the student body in Catholic schools also underwent a marked change during this period as Catholic parents became less likely to send their children to Catholic schools for their education. While almost 60 percent of Catholic children born in the 1950s would spend at least one year in a Catholic school, only 20 percent of Catholic children of grade school age attended Catholic schools in 1991.

In 1970, less than 3 percent of the students in Catholic schools were non-Catholic, and over 90 percent were white. By 1993, 17 percent of Catholic high school students were not Catholic, 8 percent were black, and 11 percent were white.