Published Online: May 26, 2011
Includes correction(s): March 24, 2012

Report Charts Enrollment Drop in Private Schools

Student enrollment in private, religious schools has taken a sharp dip since the economic downturn, as district and public charter school enrollments continue to climb, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s latest “Condition of Education”Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader report.

Private school enrollment fell from a high of 6.3 million students in the 2001-2002 school year to 5.5 million in 2009-2010, according to figures released this morning by the National Center for Education Statistics, which produces the annual statistical compendium. “It’s been slight declines, and then all of a sudden this year [2009-2010] they lost 500,000 kids,” said Jack Buckley, the NCES commissioner.

Overall, private schools served about 10 percent of the nation’s kindergarten through 12th-grade students in 2009-2010, down from a high of 12 percent in 1996. During the same period, public school enrollment increased by 2.1 million students, to 49.3 million students, from 2001 to 2009.

That dip was driven by enrollment decreases in Catholic parish and diocese schools—they lost 148,000 students that year and 510,000 altogether since 2002—as well as from schools designated by NCES statisticians as conservative Christian schools, which lost 146,000 students, and other religious-affiliated schools, which saw an 11,000-student decline that year.

By contrast, enrollment in independent and nonreligious private schools held steady over the same time period. Nonsectarian schools decreased by only about 67,000, to 1.25 million students, from 2001-02 to 2009-10. Unaffiliated, religious-themed schools actually increased slightly in the same period, from 688,000 to 823,000, though they lost 50,000 students between 2007-08 and 2009-10.

Experts say a perfect storm of broad demographic changes, economic woes, and increasing competition from public charter schools may underlie the decrease.

Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, in Washington, said all private schools have taken a hit in the recent economic downturn, but religious schools’ social mission, to serve primarily poor and underserved students, made them uniquely vulnerable.

While private school tuition typically rises 2 to 3 percentage points above inflation each year, schools instead have been simply keeping pace with inflation, Mr. Bassett said. Yet overall, private schools have seen 15 to 20 percent increases in both requests for and awarding of financial aid to students in the last two years.

“We’ve maintained enrollments, but we’ve done that by significantly increasing financial aid—for all schools, in every setting,” Mr. Bassett said. “As long as we still have capacity, it’s the airline empty-seats approach; if you have seats, you discount the tuition.”

Private School Enrollment

The "Condition of Education 2011" finds that the percentage of students enrolling in private schools, while declining since 2011-02, dropped significantly between 2007-08 and 2009-10.

In comparison, Catholic and other religious schools have less room to stretch their budgets, he said. The schools are more likely than independent private schools to be located in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, and they have a higher percentage of students already receiving free or reduced-price tuition.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association in Arlington, Va., average tuition at Catholic schools is $3,383 per year for elementary and $8,787 per year for secondary schools, which are considered at the low end of average private school tuition. Moreover, “we very rarely charge parents the total cost of education,” said Karen M. Ristau, NCEA’S president. But, she added, even discounts weren’t always enough as family budgets have started getting tight. “Tuition isn’t going to come to mind when food is more important,” Ms. Ristau said.

Rising Competition

At the same time, rising numbers of public charter schools may be poised to take over the educational niche that religious private schools vacate. The “Condition of Education 2011” report found the number of charter students has skyrocketed from just over 571,000 in 2001-2002 to more than 1.4 million in 2008-2009, the most recent year for which data is available. Nationwide, 57.5 percent of charter elementary schools and 56.4 percent of charter secondary schools operate in urban areas that many religious schools have also traditionally served. There have even been a few struggling parochial schools that chose to convert to charter schools when threatened with closure by the religious organization with which they were affiliated, such as the Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, which opened in 2005 on the campus of a former Greek Orthodox school.

A studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader released in March by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, Teachers College, found that in Michigan, at least, competition from charter elementary schools did tend to “crowd out” nearby Catholic schools and private schools in terms of lowering student enrollment, but enrollment declined in Catholic schools near charters only by 1.19 percent each year.

Ms. Ristau said she is unsurprised at the rising popularity of charter schools, but said she believes declines in private school enrollment trace to broader student demographic shifts. The NCES report projects that by the 2020-21 school year, much of the West will see 5 percent to 20 percent increases in student enrollment, with states like Nevada, Arizona, and Texas showing greater-than 20 percent rises, while New England and the Midwest, where many Catholic schools have historically been located, will see low growth or even decreases in students.

NCEA internal studiesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader found that this year, Catholic school enrollment declines are starting to level off, Ms. Ristau said, in part because Catholic schools are starting to open up in some of those regions with rising student populations.

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“We don’t want to turn away parents and we are devoted to staying in the inner cities where we can,” she said. Parishes are merging or closing many schools on the East Coast and along the Rust Belt, but opening 143 new schools, particularly in the South and West, “where people are moving and we see more people with an interest in Catholic education.”

That makes sense, Mr. Buckley said. “If you look back to the [data] by regions, it’s in the South and West that you see growth in kids, period,” Mr. Buckley said. “If I were locating a school, I’d be moving out of these areas and going to where the kids are. It seems reasonable.”

He also noted that private school enrollment declines seem to be larger at the elementary and middle level. “You see people taking their kids out of elementary and middle school but then leaving the kids in private schools for high school,” Mr. Buckley said. “If you want to budget your kids’ private school money, parents might be looking to college and focusing on [private] high school, but that’s speculation on my part; there’s nothing directly in the data on that.”

Private Colleges in Focus

Private education in general was a bigger focus of the federal report this year, as NCES analysts also produced a special studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of student enrollment and progress in private for-profit colleges.

Researchers found undergraduate enrollment in higher education increased by 4.4 million students from 2000 to 2009, including a big spike in enrollment at for-profit degree programs, which represented 27 percent of the increase, or 1.2 million students.

For-profit private schools have had the fastest growth in awarding degrees at all education levels, from associate to master’s degrees. Yet when it comes to student graduation rates, “an interesting split” emerges, according to Mr. Buckley. For four-year degree programs, private nonprofit colleges have the highest graduation rate—65 percent, compared to 55 percent for public colleges and only 22 percent for for-profit private schools.

Yet when it comes to two-year programs, the situation is reversed: For-profit colleges graduate 58 percent of students in two-year degree programs, well above the 48 percent at nonprofit private colleges and 21 percent at public colleges.

“Most people would guess the first part, but not the second,” Mr. Buckley said.

Vol. 30, Issue 33

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about the percentage of urban schools that are charter schools. According to the study, 57.5 percent of charter elementary schools and 56.4 percent of charter secondary schools operate in urban areas.

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