Published Online: March 19, 1997

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More Urban Minorities in Catholic Schools Go To College, Study Says

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Blacks and Hispanics in urban areas stand a better chance of completing high school and college if they attend a Catholic school instead of a public one, suggests a newly published report from the University of Chicago.

The conclusions support the results of earlier studies of the relative advantages of Roman Catholic education, first claimed in the early 1980s by research that set off a heated debate among scholars and educators. By concentrating on urban areas, the new study also promises to fuel the ongoing discussion over offering private school vouchers in cities with troubled public schools.

Derek Neal, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has followed the progress of more than 10,000 students since 1979. Mr. Neal found that while 62 percent of minority students at urban schools graduate, that rate is 88 percent for students from similar backgrounds who attend Catholic schools. Among urban minority students who graduated from a public high school, 11 percent completed college; for those who attended a Catholic high school, 27 percent graduated from college.

"There's just no way in the world you can deny the fact that these Catholic schools in these urban areas are doing a good job," Mr. Neal said last week. Versions of his study are being published this month in the conservative journal The Public Interest and in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Controversial Findings

In the early 1980s, University of Chicago researcher James S. Coleman led a series of studies that showed, among other findings, that the achievement gap between white and minority students was far smaller in parochial schools than in public ones. He also suggested that students in Catholic schools were more likely to improve their scores in math, reading, writing, and vocabulary than were their public school counterparts.

At the time, the conclusions were attacked by many educators and some scholars who criticized parts of Mr. Coleman's methodology and who feared the results would encourage the use of voucher programs. Many public school advocates further claimed that parochial school students did better because the Catholic schools could select students for admission.

"Everyone was caught up with if Coleman was right or wrong, and people didn't begin to examine what we could learn from these Catholic schools," said Richard Murnane, an economics professor at the Harvard graduate school of education who has written about the debate surrounding the research.

Mr. Neal's recent study backs many of the earlier claims about Catholic schools' advantage. But he also found that the advantage is far greater for urban minority students.

"It's time to get past this argument that it had to be just a difference in the students," he said. Mr. Neal noted that Catholic schools help improve the economic future of their urban minority students by seeing that more of their students become college graduates, who tend to earn more than those without a degree.

"You can look at the Catholic schools as an anti-poverty program," he said.

In his article in The Public Interest, Mr. Neal stresses his conclusions' relevance to the policy debate over vouchers. "Many politicians who oppose vouchers in any form portray themselves as true friends of the urban poor," he writes, adding, however, that they "offer no viable alternative to vouchers."

Although his research supports the implementation of more small-scale voucher experiments in cities, Mr. Neal also cautioned that the findings shed little light on the potential success of larger-scale projects.

"This says the existing Catholic schools work well," he said.

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