An interview with NCEA on Catholic school enrollment post-pandemic

Apr 02, 2023 6 Min Read
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Catholic schools in the United States have grown in enrollment for two straight years, reaching record levels in some dioceses. Nationwide, Catholic enrollment jumped from 1.63 million to 1.69 million students, an increase of more than 3.5%, according to data released in February by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Though the statistics show that enrollment has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels — 1.74 million students enrolled in 2019 — the reversal is notable, as before the pandemic enrollment was trending down by 2% to 3% annually.

Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the NCEA, which works with Catholic educators to support ongoing faith formation and the teaching mission of the Catholic Church, spoke with CNA about the new numbers and the state of U.S. Catholic education today.

Can you break down for me how the enrollment numbers at Catholic schools (in the U.S. overall) have changed since the start of the pandemic?

We did see an initial drop in those first months of the pandemic. There was a lot of disruption for a lot of families in a lot of places. And so the following May of 2020, we did see a drop in enrollment. We saw a number of schools close. A lot of difficult decisions were made at that point, but since then, Catholic schools have been on a consistent two-year upswing, so it’s very encouraging news for us.

We saw a 3.8% gain overall in the 2021-22 school year [an increase of 62,126 students]. And now in the 2022-23 school year, we’ve seen it go up another three-tenths of a percent [an increase of 5,076]. So just by way of numbers, our biggest single archdiocese in terms of enrollment is Los Angeles, and we’ve added more than another L.A. to our overall Catholic school enrollment. So for Catholic schools, this has been a really significant gain just in terms of the number of kids in our schools.

Do you know how many of the Catholic and public school families who moved to home schooling at the start of the pandemic have remained in that arrangement?

It’s very hard for us to track exactly what happened to individual families. And part of the reason I say that is we’ve also seen a lot of movement of people within the United States, and within regions. So the gains have been stronger in the South, Southeast, and Southwest. Obviously, in the Northeast, we’ve seen some places lose overall numbers of kids in big numbers. Home school is definitely one of those places where a lot of families ended up — we know that as a national trend. I really couldn’t say with any confidence how many kids that had been at Catholic schools pre-pandemic would have ended up in home schools today. We just don’t have data. But I will say that we have more new families in our schools now than we did. So people have either changed schools within their area, or they’ve moved to a new area in really big numbers. And we know that in both those cases, it appears that families were much more likely to consider a Catholic education than they have been before.

Our biggest gains have been in lower elementary and kindergarten. We have the most interest, the biggest waitlist for our younger kids. And so we also know that there’s a really good chance of us sustaining these trends because a lot of the families that have come to us are presumably going to be with Catholic schools for 10 to 12 years based on the age of the children.

What factors, in your view, account for the current increase in enrollment? Does this current upward trend appear to be sustainable?

I think we got a lot of initial interest in our schools because universally, Catholic schools were the first back to [in-person instruction during the pandemic]. They stayed open the longest, they opened the first. So we were really engaged as a system in offering in-person presence for our students wherever we could. And a lot of other schools out there were not open for in-person instruction.

So that meant a lot of families that maybe hadn’t considered a Catholic education before considered us because of that change. But the second piece is our retention rates. People may have come because we’re open, but we see from the data that they have stayed in huge numbers. So retention rates, depending on the diocese, we’re seeing in the mid- to high-90s — as high as 98% in some places. And they’re telling us they’ve fallen in love with the communities, with the teachers, with the schools for their kids.

There was a lot of speculation as to whether these families might return to a public education after their public school reopened. But they haven’t. They’ve stayed with us, which means that they came for one reason — which was the fact that we’re open — but they’ve stayed for the community.

There seem to be no easy answers when it comes to making Catholic schools more affordable for families. What is currently being done in this regard, and what have you seen work well?

I think, in general, our Catholic schools do work very hard to stay affordable. I think that parochial schools in general across the country have done a really good job of trying to keep tuition into that range of essentially a car payment. I mean, a lot of people are surprised that they can afford a Catholic school.

Not that it isn’t a sacrifice. Everybody’s giving something up to be able to send their child to a Catholic school. But all of our schools have become much more aggressive and sophisticated in offering things like financial aid. I mean, the high school that I went to bragged about giving out $180,000 in financial aid when I was a freshman there 30-plus years ago, and they’re well over $3 million now. So the ability of our schools to help families access the education through things like tuition assistance has definitely grown. I know our parishes and other religious institutions do a good job of trying to help families access an education.

But it doesn’t change the fact that obviously, you know, we’re asking families to pay for an education in an environment where they can access a public education for free. So a few things are really important for making Catholic schools more affordable. The obvious but not obvious one is going to church and supporting your parish. We are part of a bigger overall Church mission, and part of the reason we exist is because people traditionally have been willing to support kids who aren’t their own going to a Catholic school, and that starts with observance and participating in Church life and parish life, and that helps the Church better sustain its schools.

We rely on philanthropy, and we’re looking at different models that will let us work with companies to try to raise more money. But at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for every kid in a desk at a Catholic school, and it doesn’t have to be their own kid. And so we know that maintaining our broad community appeal, like we have always done, and relying on the community to help carry those kids so it’s not just a parent’s responsibility is the key to sustaining Catholic schools.

NCEA works with the USCCB and other groups to support school choice. The Church believes very strongly that parents should have the ability to select the best education for their child as their primary educators. Obviously, choice programs are starting to make a huge difference for Catholic schools in enrollment. So in places like Arizona, for example, well over 90% of our schools have children in those schools on choice programs, and well over 70% of the kids are accessing choice dollars to be at the school. So we know without these programs, it would be a far greater challenge for our communities to make Catholic education affordable. So we strongly advocate for seeing a growth in choice programs as a Church, no doubt, but it’s not our only strategy. We still also look to communities and philanthropists to help make schools affordable for families as well.

How is the NCEA working with Catholic schools to help them retain their evangelistic mission in an increasingly secular society?

A lot of the families coming to us, broadly speaking, haven’t been participating in Church life. Maybe they weren’t even Catholic to begin with, or maybe they’re Catholic but have never observed. And so we know that we have to help our members in evangelizing first. It’s a new approach for us as a Church, but I think that it’s one we have to keep in mind.

I think the good news is we’ve seen, with all of the new families coming to schools, their hearts are open and they are engaged with the community and they have entrusted their children to us — 1.7 million kids are at Catholic schools because the families believe in the Church’s ability to serve their children. And so we’ve got a really unique opportunity for evangelization right now, but we do have to always see it as that first.

I think that our Catholic schools always have to be vigilant in guarding a strong Catholic ethos at the school. So Catholic school, that’s excellent, feels Catholic, and there’s different aspects of how we observe the faith. But the things that you’re talking about, I think, in many ways come back to culture. We’re very invested in this. And so protecting that identity always has to be first and foremost for our schools.

I think that formation is ongoing, and I think especially as we see the culture change, we as a Church are going to have to be always vigilant about, always evangelizing and catechizing from within. I mean, this is a lifelong process for all of us as Catholics, and starting with Jesus, and coming closer to him is something that we always have to keep in front of us as Catholic educators.

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