As you can see, total Catholic school populations are nearly identical to a century ago - the current school population should match or drop below by next year. America's population has tripled, America's Catholic population has quadrupled, but America's Catholic schools have shrunk to almost exactly the same size they were a century ago.
School Year 1919-1920 2013-2014 Total US Population 106,000,000 319,000,000 Catholic Population 17,700,000 69,436,660 Catholic as % of Population 16.60% 21.7% Total Catholic School Population 1,925,221 1,974,578 Grade School Population 1,800,000 1,390,000 # of Grade Schools 6,551 5,399 High School Population 129,848 582,785 # of High Schools 1,552 1,195
The Catholic Grade Schools
But the news isn't even that good. The 2013 numbers have been pumped up by non-Catholic children. Yes, fully 16.4% of the 1.974 million children currently enrolled in Catholic schools are non-Catholic. If we took them out of the equation, the total Catholic student population in Catholic schools would actually be closer to 1.65 million. The Catholic student population has actually shrunk below the 1919-20 level as the nation has grown.
In 1920, almost no one went to high school, so nearly 1.8 million of the 1.9 million children enrolled were in grade school. The grade schools grew faster than the high schools. Today, the grade schools are shrinking faster than the high schools. Only 1.39 million children are in grade school. That 1.39 million includes the 14.6% of grade school students who are non-Catholics.
The Catholic High SchoolsThere are currently 582,785 Catholic high school students, but fully 20% of those high school students are not Catholic. That means we have only 462,000 Catholic students in Catholic high schools - quite a bit less than half a million. High school populations are not collapsing as fast as grade schools' primarily because today's parents want their kids in good colleges. They hope a private high school will help. Even so, both the number of high school students and high schools have been dropping for years. The current enrollment is 583,000: the high school population hasn't been this low in the last sixty years. The number of high schools is 1195: the number has not been this low in the last century.
In 1920, 64% of the population, or about 67.8 million children, were under the age of 18 (p. xv, Table E). About 11.6 million (16.6%) of those children were Catholic. Today, America has about 74 million children under the age of 18. About 16 million (22%), are Catholic. This means that both in 1920 and today, about 58 million children are non-Catholic. These figures assume Catholic children make up the same proportion of the population as Catholic adults.
Given that there are more Catholic children alive today than there were in 1920, the absolute drop in number of children attending Catholic school is truly impressive. The news probably won't get better on the Catholic front. While "data indicate that almost all self-identified Catholics having children are baptizing those children (most within a year of birth and some in later childhood years)", the raw number of children being baptized into the Catholic Church each year has been declining for decades. So has the annual number of Catholic marriages.
So, while the proportion of Catholic children in the general population may continue to increase, there is no indication this will increase the number of Catholic students in Catholic schools. In fact, the trend has been very much in the opposite direction. Bishops who insist that the Catholic schools are the key to passing on the Catholic Faith are ignoring the last 40 years of evidence to the contrary.
Non-Catholic students will not save the day. The last year the Catholic school system saw growth was 2000-01. In that year, 365,328 (13.8% ) of the school population was non-Catholic. By 2012, this number had dropped to only 318,277 (15.9%). While 2013 has seen that total rise to 323,542 (16.4%) non-Catholic students, the raw total is still over 10% off the Catholic school mini-boom of 2000-01.
Right now, Catholic schools can't seem to attract either Catholic or non-Catholic students.
Even if Catholic schools succeed in attracting the same number of non-Catholics each year, given the shrinking number of Catholic students participating, the schools won't be able to sustain themselves on non-Catholic populations alone. Over the course of the last twelve months, even with Catholic school gains of over 5000 non-Catholic students, they still lost over 27,000 total students. In both percentage and raw terms, this was actually the lowest loss rate (-1.36%) since 2001-02 (-1.17%). It is not a recipe for success.