The American middle class can no longer afford private schools

Catholic schools used to be the affordable option—but no more.
Catholic schools used to be the affordable option—but no more.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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For decades in the aftermath of World War II, Catholic schools offered a way for American children to access a quality education regardless of their socioeconomic background or religion. As the archbishop of Washington, DC, cardinal James Hickey, reportedly said: “We don’t educate children because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic.”

But private Catholic schools are vanishing throughout the US, according to a new study published in the opinion and research quarterly journal Education Next. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of Catholic schools in the US dropped by 37%. The result has been the siloing of Catholic private schools—and by extension, private schools in general—as the domain of the wealthy, a trend with the potential to exacerbate cultural and class divisions in the US.

Who gets to go to private school?

The share of school-age kids attending private elementary schools in the US peaked after World War II, reaching 15% in 1958. Once the postwar boom passed, that number decreased, falling to 10% by the mid-1970s. It leveled out at slightly less than 9% in 2015.

Catholic schools, which historically served poor urban and inner-city areas and were designed to be broadly affordable for middle-class and low-income families, accounted for a big chunk of private-school education. In 1965, 89% of kids who attended a private elementary school in the US were enrolled in a Catholic school.

But over the years, Catholic schools began to shutter their doors. The departure of urban, middle- or working-class whites from cities to the suburbs in the 1960s meant a decline in the number of parents willing to pay Catholic school tuition. At the same time, regular church attendance declined in America and large settlements to sexual abuse victims left some Catholic dioceses broke. Those dioceses then had less money to give low-income Catholic private schools for scholarships and financial aid, contributing to an increase in tuition and a wave of Catholic school closures in the northeast and midwest. According to The 74, a nonprofit news site dedicated to education coverage, Catholic schools raised their inflation-adjusted annual tuition nearly 600% between 1970 and 2010, from $873 to $5,858. Affordable? Not so much.

The result? By 2013, only 42% of private school students attended a Catholic school, a development that’s had a disproportionate impact on middle-class students.

Today, Catholic schools and nonsectarian private schools mostly serve students from high-income families, according to the lead authors of the Education Next report, Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Richard Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Private schools tend to be racially homogenous, too. According to the Department of Education’s Private School Universe Survey (pdf), private school students are overwhelmingly white.

The fact that private schools have become increasingly homogenous on a socioeconomic level is part of a broader trend of income segregation, with potentially devastating consequences. “We like to think of ourselves as a nation of tolerance,” Murnane told Quartz, “but it’s very had to empathize with kids from different backgrounds when you have no exposure to them. So, affluent kids go to school with affluent kids, and poorer kids go to school with poorer kids.”

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.