Hard times push Catholic schools toward crisis

In a trend intensified by growing economic troubles, declining enrollment in Catholic schools across the nation is forcing many of those schools to close. Compared to 10 years ago, Catholic school enrollments have plummeted by nearly 20 percent. From New York City to Sacramento, Calif., Catholic schools today are facing the double peril of rising costs and falling revenues.

The total number of students enrolled in U.S. Catholic schools for the 2008-09 school year was 2,192,531, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association. But the decline has been steady. In the 1998-99 school year, enrollment was 2.6 million, and it was 2.4 million in the 2003-04 school year.

Non-parochial private school enrollment might be declining as well, but nonreligious schools seem to be faring better than Catholic schools.

A spokesman for the National Independent Private Schools Association (NIPSA) said enrollment is “down slightly,” by about 4 percent. NIPSA collects data from its member schools in the fall, so data that might show a change for the 2009-10 school year will not be available until then.

Dwindling enrollment in some Catholic schools might occur if the dominant industry in a particular area fails, said Myra McGovern, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which counts approximately 1,400 schools as members–two-thirds of which have some sort of religious affiliation.

An area such as Detroit, in which the hard-hit auto industry has played host to the majority of the area’s jobs, will probably show lower private school enrollment as families learn to survive on one income, or move elsewhere in search of new jobs, McGovern explained.

The full impact of the current economic recession on private schools might not be clear until this fall. By the time of the market downturn in September and October 2008, enrollment was already set for the year, and many families had already paid full tuition and therefore kept their children enrolled, she said.

Maryland is one state in which Catholic school enrollment is on the downturn. Decisive action must be taken soon to address falling enrollment in Baltimore’s parochial schools, and for a decade, leaders have hoped the situation would turn around, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien said.

But this academic year, enrollment at archdiocese schools is down 5 percent, or approximately 1,200 students, according to the archdiocese. That’s the equivalent of four full schools–and it’s twice the average decline of the previous five years.

“To punt any further would be to lose the school system completely,” O’Brien said. “It’s obvious that some action has to be taken.”

In February, O’Brien began gathering priests and educators to discuss the problem, and he plans to introduce a committee dedicated to finding solutions over the next 18 months.

Leaders want most of all to avoid closing schools, but they’ll also have to look at other painful options, such as consolidation.

Baltimore is facing the same problem as many Catholic school systems across the country, especially in the Northeast, said Mark Gray, research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The schools traditionally served Catholic immigrants concentrated in northeastern cities. As Catholics move to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, school buildings couldn’t follow, he said.

In the suburbs and the South and Southwest, the problem is reversed, with many Catholic schools not having enough seats for their growing communities, Gray said.

Another demographic shift affecting enrollment is a trend toward smaller families, which translates to fewer students, O’Brien said.

"(Required)" indicates required fields