Amid the discussions surrounding the impending challenges in higher education, a pertinent question arises: Could America’s private primary and secondary schools be poised to encounter similar issues?

It is well known at this point that higher education faces imminent difficulties due to the “enrollment cliff.” A decline in birthrates following the 2008 recession is subsequently leading to an anticipated drop in student enrollments in the mid-to-late 2020s. The academic landscape has already witnessed the shuttering, impending demise, or merger of 50 public or private nonprofit higher education institutions since 2020 according to analysis from BestColleges. The public accounting firm Forvis has estimated that the university and college closure rate has tripled since 2015.

Are the same issues affecting the private secondary school market?

Demographic declines

At first glance, there are evident parallels. The Census Bureau has estimated that in October 2019, there were 17,160,000 children enrolled in all high schools, while in October 2022 (the most recent dataset available), enrollment dropped to 16,395,000—a substantial 4.5% decrease.

Even preceding the disruptions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, private primary and secondary schools experienced a downturn in enrollment between 2017 and 2019. From a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total number of schools declined by 6% in that two year span, while student enrollment dropped by 5% to a total of 4,652,904 students in K-12 private schools.

However, according to tracking done by both the CATO Institute and the federal government, enrollment rebounded during the pandemic years, most likely due to parents seeking new options during an era of school closures. In 2021, the latest year available, enrollment rose to 4,731,300 students.

That being said, while enrollment hasn’t seen the same demographic crisis that faces higher education, school closure is another story. From the CATO institute analysis, the number of schools has continued to drop since 2019 by another 2.5%, down to 29,730.

Catholic School Closures

Parochial schools have suffered a significant number of closures in the last ten years as parents increasingly turn away from Catholic education. The CATO institute has tracked closures since 2020 and has found that 236 Catholic schools have closed since 2020. Catholic schools in urban dioceses have faced pronounced difficulties. In a 2021 article, The Wall Street Journal found that Catholic school enrollment fell by 12% and 11% in Los Angeles and New York, respectively.

Declining religious engagement, political and social differences, a continuing fallout from the church’s sex-abuse scandal, as well as financial difficulties in affording tuition from working-class families have all contributed to the decline.

Like the enrollment cliff in higher education, the drop in enrollment in Catholic schooling is regionally dependent. Thus far, this trend has been most pronounced in the northeast. According to the CATO institute, of the 236 closures, 57% of them, or 135 schools, have occurred in the northeast region. Another 17% have been in the Midwest, with only 10% in the western region.

When these schools close, the decision on how to address campus real estate falls back to the parish to determine its future. These decisions have been influenced by broader macroeconomic trends. In New York City, for example, some parishes have transformed the spaces into social service centers such as food pantries and senior centers. Due to challenges in the real estate market, many have yet to sell school buildings to developers, but it remains a possibility.

Numbers Don’t Lie—Yet

The CATO institute’s analysis states that only 29 independent private schools have closed since2020. Beyond the immense decline in Catholic school enrollment, it seems as if independent private schools have yet to be significantly affected.

The changing demographics of American society will continue to contribute to shifting dynamics within the private school sector. One statistical fact remains true: American birthrates have reached their lowest rate ever and show no signs of increasing. This simple fact of demographic math will continue to pose a fundamental challenge to the sustainability of private schools, as they rely heavily on a steady influx of students to maintain operations.

In essence, the challenges facing private schools are emblematic of broader trends reshaping the educational landscape in the United States, and the currents of society at large. While enrollment rebounds during the pandemic offer a glimmer of hope, the underlying structural issues remain unresolved. As such, stakeholders within the private school sector, especially among parochial schools, must adapt to these changing realities, fostering innovation and resilience to navigate the uncertain terrain ahead.