U.S. Catholic school enrollments suffer steepest annual drop in five decades, statistics show


Enrollment in Catholic schools in the United States fell 6.4% from the previous school year amid the pandemic and economic strains – the biggest single-year drop in at least five decades, have Catholic education officials reported Monday.

Factors included the closure or consolidation of over 200 schools and the difficulty for many parents to pay tuition fees averaging over $ 5,000 for K-8 grades and over $ 10,000 for students. high schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

John Reyes, NCEA’s executive director for operational vitality, said the pandemic has been an “accelerator” for the long-standing challenges facing Catholic education.

A portrait of Saint John Paul II hangs next to a row of empty lockers in the main hallway of Quigley Catholic High School in Baden, Pa., In June 2020. (AP)


Between the 2019-2020 school year and the current year, nationwide enrollment has dropped from 110,000 to around 1.6 million students. In the 1960s, registrations exceeded 5 million.

With the recent wave of closures, there are now 5,981 Catholic schools in the United States, up from more than 11,000 in 1970.

Reyes said they had a disproportionate impact on urban communities where significant numbers of black children, many of them non-Catholic families, attended Catholic schools.

Indeed, some of the largest enrollment losses were recorded in large city dioceses, notably 12.3% in Los Angeles, 11.1% in New York and 8.2% in Chicago.

The only major city dioceses that saw significant increases were western cities with large Hispanic populations: up 5.5% in Las Vegas, 4.6% in Denver and 2.4% in Phoenix.

Elementary and middle schools were hit hardest with a drop in collective enrollment of 8.1%, compared to a 2.5% drop for secondary schools. Preschool programs saw the largest decline, 26.6%

“Declining primary enrollment could have a delayed but significant impact on secondary school enrollment over the next five to ten years, which could prove disastrous for the viability of secondary schools,” NCEA said in a statement. analysis of new data.


Reyes said tuition fee revenues do not fully cover the costs of running Catholic schools, and yet they are still a burden on many families. He said that a third of families with children in primary school apply for financial assistance, and 47% of families with children in secondary school.

The reductions in professional staff – teachers and administrators – were more modest than the decline in enrollment, with a 2.3% drop from the previous year. This allowed the national Catholic system to maintain an 11-to-1 student-teacher ratio, significantly lower than most public schools.

Reyes said one of the reasons for the relatively modest reduction in staff size was the use of federal paycheck protection program funds in the spring of 2020. Without additional external support going forward, he said. He added, there is the potential for severe staff reductions as well as a further decline in enrollments.

“I cannot say that a rebound is guaranteed” at the end of the pandemic, Reyes said.

Often in the past year, when plans to close were announced, parents and alumni have launched campaigns – mostly unsuccessful – to keep these schools open. Even in some cases where dioceses had financial resources, school officials responded that long-term enrollment trends and sometimes the need for costly renovations made this impractical.

They included legendary educational institutions such as the Institute of Notre Dame, a girls’ school in Baltimore founded in 1847 and closed last summer to the dismay of former students like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


Previously, the largest drop in one-year enrollment for U.S. Catholic schools was 5.8% in 1971. The NCEA said it did not have complete enrollment data for years prior to 1970.

Other significant annual declines were a 2.7% drop in 2003 at the height of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and 3.5% in 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession, according to the NCEA.


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