School's Out Forever: The Growth and Decline of Catholic Education in the United States

Fewer than half of the Catholic schools that existed in the United States in 1965 exist today. At their peak, Catholic schools enrolled roughly 12% of the school-aged population. Today, they enroll just over 5% of the school aged population. Despite this decline, fully 2.5 million students stand to be displaced should the number of Catholic schools continue to decline over the coming years. In order to assess where, when and why Catholic schools have declined dramatically over the last fifty years I gathered and digitized extensive diocesan level data from the Official Catholic Directory extending back to 1900. I combine this information with county-level census data, data on religious adherence, information on bishop’s background and reputation, measures of school choice and charter legislation, data on the prevalence of sexual abuse claims, and information on schools and school districts from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

I begin the dissertation by charting the unique rise of Catholic education in the United States. I then use the tools of organizational ecology to describe its dramatic decline. In the first major empirical chapter, I take the diocese as my unit of analysis and ask which dioceses are more likely to experience a school closure. Results suggest that schools are more likely to close in dioceses with more African American and Hispanic students. Next, I shift units of analysis and consider within a handful of case-study dioceses which schools are most likely to close. Here, I address specifically the consequences of Catholic school closures for inequality and stratification. In the 1980s there was a vigorous debate about whether Catholic schools produced ‘better’ students (as measured by test scores, later educational attainment and measures of civic participation). Although debate about the finding of these effects continues, there appears to be some consensus that while there are no universal Catholic school effects, Catholic schools produce results for the urban poor, largely because these students have traditionally been served by the worst of the worst public schools. In this chapter, I ask whether these schools that serve the urban poor are more likely to close than other schools. Preliminary results suggest that they are. In a third chapter, I focus on the process of closure and consider what factors can “save” a school targeted for closure. Here I argue that nostalgia generated by alumni, many of whom no longer have a direct connection to the school or neighborhood, can often be more successful than more conventional organizing by parents of current students.

STATA Code for matching 2000 FIPS to Dioceses


Department of Sociology
Loyola University New Orleans
6363 St. Charles Ave. Box 30
New Orleans, LA 70118