Why Can’t the Middle Class Afford Catholic School Anymore?

BY GREG DOLAN, Catholic Education Partners

recent study in Education Next evaluates the shift in the haves and have-nots of private education, highlighting the disturbing trend of private schools enrolling students predominantly from high-income families. Authors Richard Murnane and Sean Reardon point to the loss of half of America’s Catholic schools, and their mission to serve low-and-middle-income families, as a huge factor in this trend.

While the authors point to two well-known causes of this decline, increased labor costs at Catholic schools and constraints on diocesan finances generally, the fact that as many people work for Catholic schools today as did in 1960, when there were twice as many schools and three times as many students, points to a serious lack of adaptation on the part of Catholic school leaders.

Murnane and Reardon state that “private [elementary] schools, like public schools, are increasingly segregated by income,” with students from middle-income families half as likely to attend private school now compared to half a century ago. That downward trend comes as private schooling as whole serves a smaller fraction of American schoolchildren – down from 15 percent in 1958 to less than 9 percent as of 2015.

The authors argue that the decline in the number of Catholic schools, especially in urban areas, is a leading factor in the lack of affordable private schooling in the country. “In 1965, 89 percent of American children who attended a private elementary school were enrolled in a Catholic school; in 2013, the comparable figure was 42 percent.” While Catholic schools were losing a huge share of students, average tuition rose from $873 in 1970 to $5,858 in 2010 (in 2015 dollars).

What made Catholic schools increasingly price middle-income families out of a faith-filled education? The obvious explanation is a decline in religious vocations and the subsequent disappearance of low-cost labor from priests, nuns, and brothers on staff. But a fuller explanation shows that decades of Catholic school leaders did not adapt to changing circumstances to ensure that middle-income families would still be able to afford tuition.

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Greg Dolan is Director of Policy and Outreach at Catholic Education Partners.