Catholic schools in the US face the sharpest decline in enrolment of students in nearly fifty years, a new study finds.
The study, part of the annual report published by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), found that following the Covid-19 pandemic, enrolment figures at Catholic schools had fallen fastest since 1972/73.
Since 2019/20, there has been an overall decline of over 110,000 students (6.4%) across Catholic schools. The fall is more than double that which followed the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2003 (2.7%).
Elementary schools were hardest hit by the fall – they accounted for 40% of the drop in numbers. Since the 2019/20, 209 schools have closed their doors, 89% of which were elementary schools.
NCEA found that declines in enrolment at primary grades might be a sign of steeper declines to come.
“[It] may lead to a delayed but significant impact on secondary school enrolment within the next five to ten years, proving potentially disastrous for secondary school viability,” it said.
Though Catholic schools were among the first to reopen and prioritized “operating in-person” for elementary and pre-Kindergartens schools, enrolment declined by 26.6%.
While media coverage reported that Catholic schools and other non-public schools benefitted from “pandemic-induced suspension of in-person instruction”, the NCEA’s research points to “notable enrolment losses”.
The 10 Catholic school dioceses that saw an increase of 1% in enrolment were among the smaller districts, with absolute increases rising by at most 567 (in Denver). The larger dioceses of Los Angeles and New York saw an absolute fall of 9,045 (12.3%) and 6,658 (11.1%) respectively among the student body.
School closures disproportionately affected underserved and non-Catholic families. Catholic schools, the report notes, were historically setup to serve immigrant or marginalised families.
Of the students at Catholic schools that merged or closed, 15% received Title 1 funding to help students from low-income families and 72% were non-Catholic, compared to an average of 6% and 83% respectively.
“In many cases, these underserved groups were over twice as likely to have their Catholic schools close compared to both all school closures and all communities served by Catholic schools,” the NCEA’s report said.
This “erasure of Catholic schools” across the country will do net harm to underserved communities and “amounts to a disruptive divestment of social capital and pathways of opportunity for all families”.
The news of closures came from a briefing note of the NCEA’s report. The final report is due to be released on 17th February.