Catholic Schools Achieve High Marks at Low Costs


Historically, Catholic schools have played a significant role in educating America's children. They continue to be important and effective players in the field today, despite substantial changes in the size and makeup of the Catholic school student body over the last four decades.

Not only do Catholic schools continue to advance the academic, religious, and moral development of the students in their care, research shows, they do it at less than half the cost of the public schools.

Catholic schols are characterized by a strong sense of community, high academic standards, and a committed faculty. Students are disciplined and orderly. Academic achievement is notable, particularly among inner-city African-American families, where parental satisfaction also is high.

The number of children Catholic schools educate has fallen in recent decades. It peaked in 1960, when about one in every seven U.S. children attended a Catholic school; by 1999, that ratio had fallen to nearly one in 20. The composition of the student body underwent a dramatic change.

Enrollment changed in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion. For example, in the 1970-71 school year, minority enrollment in Catholic schools was 12.2 percent of total enrollment. In the 1999-2000 school year, by contrast, minority enrollment had nnearly doubled, to 22.3 percent. In 1970 only 2.7 percent of Catholic school enrollment was non-Catholic; by 2000, that number had risen to 13.4 percent.

Student Outcomes

A 1990 RAND study of Catholic schools and public schools in New York City showed very different outcomes for the minority and disadvantaged youth they attracted. Nina Shokraii-Rees summarized the differences as follows:

  • Catholic high schools graduated 95 percent of their students each year; the public schools graduated only slightly more than 50 percent of their senior clsses.
  • More than 66 percent of the Catholic school graduates received the New York Regents diploma; only about 5 percent of the public school students received that distinction.
  • Catholic school students achieved an average combined SAT I score of 803; the average combined SAT I score for public school students was 642.
  • Sixty percent of African-American Catholic school students scored above the national average for African-American students on the SAT I; less than 30 percent of public school African-American students scored above the average.

Selectivity Bias

Early studies comparing Catholic and public schools often were discounted by critics who argued the differences were a result of selectivity bias, claiming the Catholic schools leave the worst-performing and worst-behaved students in public schools. But when Derek Neal at the University of Chicago analyzed U.S. Department of Education data and took that potential bias into account, he found the Catholic school advantage was still evident, with Catholic schools producing the following long-run results and lifetime advantages:

  • Attending a Catholic high school raises the probability of finishing high school and entring college by 17 percentage points for inner-city children.
  • African-American and Hispanic students attending urban Catholic schools are more than twice as likely to graduate from college as their counterparts in public schools: 27 percent of African American and Hispanic Catholic school graduates who started college went on to graduate, compared with 11 percent from urban public schools.
  • When compared with their public school counterparts, minority students in urban Catholic schools can expect roughly 8 percent higher wages in the future.

A more recent study of New York City schools confirms the stellar results of Catholic schools.

Paul Peterson of Harvard University and the Hoover Institution and Herbert Walberg of the University of Illinois compared the costs and performance of students in 88 public and 77 Catholic elementary and middle schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. They found Catholic schools are at least twice as efficient, and their students perform better on state tests.

To ensure a fair comparison, Peterson and Walberg deducted all expenditures that did not have a private school counterpart, including all monies spent on transportation, special ducation, school lunch, and numerous bureaucratic functions. After removing all of those expenditures — which represent nearly 40 percent of the cost of running the New York City public schools — the analysis showed public schools still spent more than $5,000 per pupil each year, compared to $2,400 spent by Catholic schools.

Test score comparisons also were revealing. When schools serving populations with similar poverty levels were compared — with special education student test scores excluded — Catholic schools outperformed public schools on state-administered math and reading tests for the third and sixth grade. Additional analyses showed test scores remained higher in Catholic schools even after adjustments were made for race and ethnicity.

Even when the attributes of famlies who choose to pay for private education are taken into account, other studies show African-American students from low-income schools learn more — or at least as much — at half the cost of public schools.

Although their enrollments have declined, the effect of Catholic schools still stands out. Catholic schools continue to contribute to the fabric of American education.




Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa. "Catholic Schools Achieve High Marks at Low Costs." Focus on Education (2002).

This article reprinted with permission from Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa. Their forthcoming bok on K-12 education, School Figures: A Look at the Details behind the Debate, will be published in March of 2003 by the Hoover Institution Press.


Hanna Skandera is a public affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution. Her email address is Richard Sousa is an associate director at the Hoover Institution. His email address is

Copyright © 2003

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