New Issue Brief: Understanding the Catholic School Enrollment Boost

Leesburg, VA — NCEA Vice President of Data and Research, Annie Smith co-authored a brief for the Manhattan Institute based on the NCEA Data Brief: 2021 – 2022 Catholic School Enrollment scrutinizing unprecedented challenges caused by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Along with Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow Kathleen Porter-Magee and Matt Klausmeier, formerly of the Colorado Department of Education, the trio suggest in the new issue brief, Catholic Schools Boomed During Covid. Let’s Make It More Than a One-Time Bump, that after decades of consistent enrollment declines, the pandemic could signal a turning point for Catholic schools. The key will be for Catholic school leaders to seize the opportunity to build on the current enrollment uptick and turn it into retention.

The 2021-2022 NCEA data reveal a 3.8 percent enrollment increase for Catholic elementary and secondary schools nationwide – the first nationwide enrollment increase in 25 years. Breaking this increase down by grade level reveals that Pre-K accounted for 66 percent of the boost, meaning Catholic schools received an influx of young families that could shape the future of Catholic K-12 education.

Catholic schools safely and efficiently met the needs of their communities over the past two years. Safe in-person learning throughout the pandemic appears to have been central in driving the enrollment increase. As the newest brief shows, this sort of student-centric leadership and adaptability will determine whether the enrollment boost translates into permanent change, or ultimately becomes a missed opportunity. Recommendations for Catholic schools include:

  • Remove potential barriers to admission and financial assistance at Catholic schools. Catholic school admissions processes, scholarship paperwork and tuition policies are often cumbersome and opaque, constituting barriers which push away families which would otherwise benefit greatly from Catholic education.
  • Focus efforts on retaining new, especially Pre-K, families. Given that many parents pay for childcare or pre-K, but fewer pay out of pocket for kindergarten, the chances of Catholic schools losing new families to free public and charter options is high.
  • Consider alternative school governance that empowers lay leadership. Too many parishes are stretched thin—often to the breaking point—and schools can be among the most complex of the church’s ministries.
  • Advocate for public recognition of the value provided by Catholic schools, with the aim of securing public funding. Especially with the Supreme Court clearing legal obstacles in Carson v. Makin, it’s time governors and state officials recognize the rights of parents to choose schools aligned with their priorities and to support providing public funds to exercise those rights.

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