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The Church began Jan. 28 its annual Catholic Schools Week, a celebration of Catholic education jointly sponsored by the USCCB and the National Catholic Educational Association. 

Credit: Alamy.

For Catholic parishes with schools, Catholic School Week is a time for open houses and pulpit pitches to encourage parents to enroll their children. The annual effort is particularly important as Catholic schools, like many other institutional aspects of the Church, struggle with the changing demographics and geography of American Catholicism.

But what are the long-term trends facing Catholic education in the U.S.? How are they affecting the life of the Church? 

The Pillar looks at the numbers.

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While the consolidation or closing of Catholic parishes has made news in recent years, the decline in the number of Catholic schools is significantly greater. The number of Catholic parishes in the U.S. has declined by 10% from 1970 to 2022, according to data compiled by Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) using the Official Catholic Directory.

In contrast, the number of Catholic elementary schools has declined by 49% during the same period, from 9,366 schools in 1970 to 4,751 in 2022. The number of Catholic high schools has declined 41% from 1,986 to 1,174.  

The decrease in the number of students in Catholic schools is even greater, with a 65% decrease in elementary students enrolled and a 69% decrease in high school students.

During that same time period, the number of students in U.S. public elementary schools remained virtually unchanged. According to data from the U.S. census, there were 30 million students in U.S. public elementary schools in 1970 and 29.4 million in 2022.

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The situation for Catholic higher education is somewhat different. 

The number of Catholic colleges and universities decreased by 21% from 279 in 1970 to 220 in 2022, but the number of students in those colleges students served by those institutions actually increased by 74%, from 411,111 in 1970 to 717,197 in 2022.

But the increase in students should be seen within the context of the large increase in college enrollments over the last 50 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges increased from 8.6 million in 1970 to 19 million in 2022, an increase of 121%.

On the whole, it is clear that the percentage of U.S. students who are attending Catholic educational institutions has decreased significantly over the last 50 years.

But are Catholic schools serving the same percentage of Catholic children as they did in the past?

While there is no official source of data on the population of school-age Catholic children, we used data on baptisms collected by CARA from the Official Catholic Directory to estimate the number of Catholic children between the ages of 6 and 18, based on the number of baptisms which had been performed 6 to 18 years before.

Analysis suggests that while in 1985, 21% of Catholic children were in Catholic elementary or high schools, in 2022 that percentage had decreased to 16%.

However, despite this decreasing percentage of Catholic children attending religious schools, the formation of a Catholic education remains important to the life of the Church. This is particularly clear in the educational backgrounds of newly ordained priests.

Each year the USCCB commissions CARA to conduct a survey of newly ordained priests. According to the 2023 survey, 43% of all newly ordained priests had attended a Catholic elementary school.

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The percentage of Catholic school children who grow up to become priests is very small. There were 2 million children in Catholic schools during the period when newly ordained priests were likely in K-12, and assuming that half of those were boys, 0.02% of those children went on to among the 451 priests ordained in 2022.

However, priests are nearly three times more likely to have gone to Catholic schools than the general population of baptized Catholics. And when listing the influences which inspired their vocations, an average of 28% of the priests ordained over the last five years listed a teacher as someone who encouraged them to consider the priesthood. This makes teachers one of the biggest influences on ordinands’ decision to enter the priesthood. Over the last five years, new priests listed teachers’ encouragement right behind that of their mothers, and above that of their fathers as a positive influence on their decision.

As they consider how to grow Catholic schools and ensure that they continue to offer an authentically Catholic intellectual formation, leaders within the Church may need to weigh particularly the impact of their work on the next generation of priests.

Of course, institutional Catholic schools are not the only form of Catholic education, and surveys of newly ordained priests in recent years point to another which has been growing in importance. 

In the 2023 survey of ordinands, 11% of newly ordained priests reported that they had been homeschooled for at least a portion of their education. On average, these new priests had been taught at home for eight years out of their K-12 years.

The number of new priests from a homeschooling background has increased significantly in recent years. When CARA first collected data on it in 2006, 3% of newly ordained priests reported having been homeschooled during part of their K-12 years, and the average length of homeschooling was only 4.5 years.

The number of Catholic homeschooled students is not known. According to current U.S. census surveys, 6% of current K-12 students are homeschooled, but 10-15 years ago, when this year’s newly ordained priests were school age, the national homeschooling rate was estimated to be between 2% and 4%. 

We have not found reliable data on the percentage of Catholic families who homeschool, but it seems likely that to contribute 11% of newly ordained priests, Catholic homeschooling families, like institutional Catholic school settings, are producing a higher rate of vocations than the general Catholic population.

With different forms of education available, both parents and Church leaders will doubtless take the time to pray and think this Catholic Schools Week about how to give the Catholic children of today the intellectual formation which will prepare them to live out the universal call to holiness and pursue their own particular vocations in the modern world.

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