The students who attend private schools and the type of private schools they choose are changing, according to a new study from Education Next charting the shifting demographics of private school enrollment in the United States. The study found that families with children in private schools tend to be wealthier and are moving away from Catholic schools to those with different religious affiliation—or no faith affiliation at all.
Researchers Sean Reardon of Stanford and Richard Murnane of Harvard found that while the percentage of students enrolled in private K-12 schools held steady between 1965 and 2013—about 1 in 10 students—the percentage attending Catholic schools dropped sharply. Catholic schools once educated the vast majority of all private school students but now enroll just 42 percent. Among middle- and low-income families, non-Catholic religious schools, primarily Protestant and Jewish institutions, picked up the difference. Enrollment in non-Catholic religious schools rose from just 8 percent in 1965 to 40 percent in 2013.
But overall, the percentage of middle-income families choosing private schools dropped. While the number of high-income families held steady, they increasingly chose secular schools. Enrollment at non-religious private schools grew from 4 percent to 18 percent, almost entirely due to interest from high-income families.
Private school attendance also varied by region and lifestyle. Families from cities more often enrolled children in private school than families from the suburbs, even accounting for income differences.
While the researchers did not study the causes of these changes, they did suggest several possibilities. The widespread closure of Catholic schools spurred the biggest changes. Many Catholic schools suffered funding cuts, as some dioceses dealt with sexual abuse lawsuits, and many dioceses also faced a decrease in clergy and nuns available to teach. Catholic schools not forced to close increasingly raised their tuition, making it harder for them to serve the low- and middle-income families that have historically represented most of their students. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich