The Need for Intervention
Since 2007, Catholic Schools across the United States have experienced 14% closure rate over the course of more than a decade, with the number of schools across all regions within the United States dropping from 7,378 to 6,352. One observes a significant drop in enrollment within the Pre K-8th age range, experiencing a -21.4% average decrease across the United States, with the number of students enrolled in 2018 dropping 392,090 since 2007. In grade levels 9th-12th we see a change that mirrors that of the average closure rate for Catholic Schools, with a drop of around -13.4%, as student enrollment declined from 622,954 to 539,707. What can be deduced from the discrepancy between the -21.4% of PreK-8th versus the -13.4% in 9th-12th grade levels, is that High Schools have yet to experience the subsequent (and likely unfinished) decline of Catholic Elementary and Middle School enrollment, as it is often the case that Catholic Schools depend in large part upon the provision of students from Catholic feeder and partner schools to fill their student body. Also high schools have an added attraction of sports participation that hedges the drop a bit. Similarly, we will likely see a continual if not exponential increase in the closure of Catholic Schools, as institutions adapt through closure or merging to accommodate this financially unsustainable drop in enrollment.
Local to the Central Valley, this drop in enrollment is evident. Examining a 5 year enrollment period from 2014-2018 enrollment among K-8th Catholic Schools in Northern Central Valley in California, we observe an 11.4% average drop in enrollment across nine local Catholic schools. If this trend continues without severe changes, we can expect the majority of Catholic schools to be closed within the next several decades.
Why is this Occuring?
The trends of decreased enrollment, which are likely to continue in Catholic Schools, may be due to a variety of factors that have collided at a single period within the decade.
Coupled with population and reproduction trends alongside rapidly changing cultural attitudes towards sexuality, marriage, and family life, we see what is often referred to as the rise of the “nones,” meaning individuals who, when surveyed, self-identify their religion as ‘none’, or ‘non-affiliated’. A Pew Research Center survey saw an increase in unaffiliated individuals from 16.1% to 22.8% between 2007 and 2014, with a simultaneous -3.1% drop in self-identifying Catholics over the 7 year period. This drop is exaggerated among the millennial generation in particular, but is nevertheless seen among all ages and ethnicities. Western society is undergoing a radical secularization of its culture, which is manifested foremost through the abandoning of its religious traditions. This is seen no less in the United States, and the decline in enrollment within Catholic Schools can be accounted for in part by the decreasing numbers of self-identifying Catholics who may otherwise value Catholic education.
On the subject of economics, it is also predicted that the United States is due to enter another period of recession that may provide another tremor to Catholic school enrollment, as the 2008 crisis did. With such periods of financial tribulation reported by many to be around the corner, we are likely to see the repeated consolidation, merging, and closing, of Catholic Schools that are unable to withstand such turmoil if it does occur as predicted. This is at a time when schools already struggle to compete with public institutions in offering competitive compensation packages to employees whilst retaining competent professionally skilled educators that can provide a compelling quality of education with a low student-to-teacher ratio that often appeals to parents as an expense worth paying for. As Catholic Schools work to compete with public schools through emulating programs offered at them, they are forced to supply a more expensive education to maintain them and pass those expenses on in the form of higher tuition. Schools during such inevitable periods are challenged to offer low tuition rates coupled with an educational product that stands in stark contrast to the “free” and readily available alternative of public education, which is often infeasible.
It is the time to offer an alternative to unappealing model of Catholic education currently available, by return to the roots of the Church education traditions found within the classical academy. Those statistics from the National Catholic Education Association are rivaled by unprecedented growth and expansion of classical Christian schools (frequently, though not exclusively, these schools are operated by Catholics with a Catholic tradition but cannot call themselves a “Catholic School” because they operate outside of the Diocesan Catholic Schools office). The number of classical schools started at ten in 1994 and grew to 240 in 2017. Enrollment was at 17,000 students in 2002 and 41,000 in 2017 (over 140% increase). The sudden emergence of hundreds of classical Catholic schools fueled the founding and growing influence of organizations like the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and has moved countless authors (Stratford Caldecott, Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and Senator Ben Sasse to name a few) respected in Catholic, educational, or civic thought to sing praises for the potential shown by classical schools to be the springboard of a resurgence in Christian education, Cristian culture, and society itself. The numbers and the testimonials stand in stark contrast to the NCEA data, local Catholic school realities, and constant discontent with the secular education model adopted by the majority of Catholic and non-Catholic private schools. Classical education formed the Doctors of the Church, the men and women we recognize as Saints and models of faith, and the greatest thinkers to ever share their gifts. It is time for California’s Central Valley to enjoy the rich tradition and demonstrated success of classical Catholic education.
See the Why Classical Education? page for more details on how our Academy combats these trends.