The plight of American Catholic schools over the last half-century is well known. The nuns fled, tuitions rose, Catholicity retreated. A precipitous decline in enrollment followed. In 1960, there were 5.2 million students in 13,000 Catholic schools; these numbers have tumbled to 1.7 million students in 6,200 schools in 2020. Over these decades, declining school enrollment and closures ominously preceded declining church attendance and church closures.
Multiple efforts have been made to save Catholic education, including the establishment of “Catholic Schools Week,” which begins tomorrow, to celebrate Catholic education and market it to prospective students. For years, the marketing angle typically proclaimed the benefits of including faith as part of the educational enterprise. This year’s theme, for example, is “Faith. Excellence. Service.” This is why, the sales pitch says, parents should choose Catholic education over the free public education available down the block.
Judgment about this marketing campaign lies in the numbers: enrollment has still been dropping, schools have still been closing. Selling a faith-centered education to Catholics whose faith is nominal has not worked. Let’s face it: parents will not be attracted to – or pay for – what they only marginally believe in themselves.
We know, however, that parents will pay enormous sums to help their children advance in the secular world – athletic and music lessons, SAT prep tutors, and, yes, private schools – so long as these schools promise an edge in college admissions and getting ahead in the rat race.
Catholic schools’ primary purpose is to lead their students to Heaven, not to Harvard. But so long as a vast majority of Catholics prefer the latter for their children, Catholic school marketing should meet that reality. That is, Catholic schools must unabashedly offer an academic education that is more rigorous in content than in public schools, and one that is free of the bogus pedagogical theories and secular dogmas that have destroyed American schooling.
Once students are enrolled, Catholic schools can begin to catechize the children – and, through them, their parents – through a robust religion curriculum and a pervasive Catholic identity. If schools do their job well, students and their parents will graduate with their hearts set on Heaven, and with the goal of converting Harvard.
Read more at The Catholic Thing