Catholic School Students Wealthier Than Ever

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As more studies tout the success of Roman Catholic schools in educating low-income urban students, the parochial schools are being praised by many for confirming the church's commitment to the poor.

But new research suggests that over the past 20 years, the typical Catholic secondary school student in the United States has, in fact, become more likely to be financially well-off.

From 1972 to 1992, the portion of Catholic high school students whose family incomes were in the top fourth of all Americans rose from 30 percent to 46 percent, according to Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Catholic secondary schools are "getting dangerously close to where if you go another 10 years, the majority of students in the schools will be upper-middle-class kids," said Mr. Riordan, who examined three separate surveys from the U.S. Department of Education.

The findings raise important questions about the mission of American Catholic education, which historically has "placed a great deal of emphasis on serving disadvantaged kids," said Mr. Riordan, whose research was sponsored by the Life Cycle Institute, an academic center based at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

With financial support from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, the institute had scheduled a gathering of Mr. Riordan and other researchers for late last week to focus on the forces reshaping Catholic education. The two-day conference followed a year of study by more than two dozen researchers who examined subjects ranging from religious education to the cost of running a parochial school.

"There is a lot of optimism about Catholic education; the enrollment has turned around, and there's more public awareness of what Catholic schools are doing," said John Convey, the chairman of Catholic University's department of education. "But at the same time there are a number of critical issues that Catholic education has to address to maintain the momentum."

The research sponsored by the Life Cycle Institute paints a picture of an education system in the midst of a big transition. Born in the last century primarily to educate European immigrants who were largely poor and urban, the parochial schools in this country now serve a population that is more racially diverse and less Catholic, and at the same time wealthier and more suburban. ("Keeping the Faith," Feb. 26, 1997.)

Fewer than 20 percent of all school-age Catholic children now attend a Catholic school, down from nearly 50 percent in 1962.

Rising Tuition

Researchers speculate that many of these trends are driven by rising costs. Catholic elementary school tuition jumped an average of 12.4 percent annually from 1980 to 1989, according to Joseph Claude Harris, a Life Cycle Institute research analyst who examined school financing.

A Catholic education was often free to members of local parishes through the 1960s, when the nuns and other religious who made up most of the schools' staffs provided an inexpensive labor force. But as lay people began to replace them, the cost of operating a school rose dramatically.

Annual tuition now averages about $1,300 at Catholic elementary schools, and about $3,100 at high schools, according to the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association.

As a result, Mr. Harris contends, Catholic schools have evolved in a few decades into "a tuition-funded program for those who can afford tuition."

Some observers say the rise in the socioeconomic status of Catholic school students coincides with an increase in the personal income of many Catholic families.

"Over the last several decades, Catholics as a group have become more affluent," said NCEA President Leonard DeFiore.

But Mr. DeFiore also sees the recent findings as an argument for enabling low-income parents, especially those in urban areas, to use public aid to send their children to parochial schools.

"The danger is that in the inner cities it's a very difficult struggle for parents to make that choice [to send their children to Catholic school]," said Mr. DeFiore.

But many of the researchers scheduled to appear at last week's conference believe that guaranteeing the future success of Catholic schools will take more than tuition vouchers. Mr. Harris said the Catholic church and its members should reaffirm its commitment to its schools.

"I think the church leaders need to be as concrete and specific as the bishops were in 1884," said Mr. Harris, referring to the year a national conference of Catholic bishops urged the nation's Catholic parents to seek a parochial education for their children.

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