The purpose of this article is not to cast blame. Instead, I want to highlight the disturbing trend which many of us have heard and read about, namely, that enrollment in American Catholic schools has declined severely over the past 50 years.
"U. S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost thirteen thousand schools across the nation. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in both the number of schools and students. By 1990, there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools. From the mid 1990s though 2000, there was a steady enrollment increase (1.3%) despite continued closings of schools.
Between the 2000 and the 2011 school years, 1,755 schools were reported closed or consolidated (21.5%). The number of students declined by 587,166 (22.1 %). The most seriously impacted have been elementary schools."
Personally, it saddens me to see any private school in decline. It's even worse to discover that schools have closed. But the sheer magnitude of these numbers is just plain scary. Let's examine some of the reasons why Catholic education finds itself in this state.
The economy is a major factor. The Great Recession of 2008 has cost millions of people
their jobs. If parents have to struggle just to make ends meet, a private school education becomes unaffordable. And Catholic parochial and high school educations have historically been some of the most affordable private school educations available. Fewer students mean more seats available. More seats available means less tuition income. It is a vicious cycle not easily broken. Once it starts, it is very difficult to turn around.
Changing Social Customs
Church membership nationwide in just about every denomination has been on a decline for decades. The Catholic Church has been particularly hard hit as it faced changing demographics in thousands of parishes. Whereas 50 years ago, Sunday masses were well-attended and parishes seemed to flourish, nowadays the neighborhoods have changed,
leaving small, aging congregations struggling to keep the doors of their beloved old church open. Soaring energy costs and a lack of priests have further exacerbated the problem.
The Child Abuse Settlements
The scandals which have rocked the American Catholic Church from 2000-2010 have effectively drained the coffers of dozens of Catholic dioceses, requiring, as they did, enormous settlements to bring a conclusion to the legal process. Property has been sold to raise money. Hundreds of schools which had been kept afloat with diocesan support had that financial lifeline cut off. There was no other choice.
The Way Forward
I know that Catholic education will survive long term. What we have seen, in my opinion, is a winnowing process in which schools which had financial and enrollment issues have been forced to face up to those issues. If they found answers to their problems, they survived. If they didn't, they closed their doors. The schools which are left are the ones which have weathered all the economic and cultural onslaughts which have been thrown at them over the past decade. They will probably continue to survive and find new ways to thrive.
Education has been a major focus of the Catholic Church for the better part of two millenia. I do not see the focus changing. Not one bit. Parents who want their children to be educated in Catholic schools will continue to find ways to accomplish that objective. The schools themselves will learn to adapt to changing times by marketing themselves more successfully and by offering academic courses which produce graduates who can succeed in life. Catholic schools will emerge as a leading force in American education once again, only this time they will be leaner, more market savvy and on a sounder financial footing.
What can you and I do? Support our schools. If you have the means to make a substantial gift to your alma mater, call the school. Let it know that you want to help because you believe in the value of a Catholic education and what that education has done for you.