A large share of this decline was due to enrollment attrition at pre-Kindergarten schools.
“Of the net loss of 111,000 students to Catholic schools from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, 40% of that loss can be attributed to Pre-Kindergarten related enrollment attrition,” the NCEA said. “This mirrors similar losses in public school preschool and Kindergarten enrollment.”
Despite Catholic pre-Kindergarten schools remaining open—and national enrollment having trended “slightly upwards”—pre-Kindergarten enrollment dropped 26.6% for this academic year.
Catholic elementary education also saw a sharper decline, compared to Catholic secondary schools.
Enrollment at Catholic elementary schools was down 8.1% in 2020-2021, compared to a decrease of 2.5% Catholic secondary schools. The enrollment figures for secondary schools decreased the same amount in 2020-2021 compared to the 2019-2020 school year, but Catholic elementary schools lost nearly 5% more students this academic year than last year.
The drop in enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic far outpaces the declines that followed the Church’s 2002 clergy sex abuse crisis and the 2008 financial crisis.
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Enrollment at Catholic schools dropped by 2.7% in 2003, at the height of the clerical sex abuse scandal, and by 3.5% in 2008, during the economic downturn. The NCEA does not list the reasons why students leave schools, but instead monitors total enrollment figures.
In addition, the closure of Catholic schools disproportionately affected lower-income students of color living in urban areas, the report found.
“In many cases, these underserved groups were over twice as likely to have their Catholic schools close compared to both all school closures and all communities served by Catholic schools,” the NCEA said.