Catholic high schools aren’t just for the rich
The high cost of Catholic education leaves many in the dust. One mother argues that it will take the whole church to pick up the children who are left behind.
Last fall I found myself planting a yard sign in front of a modest house in Toledo, Ohio. I thought about the high school girl the sign was celebrating. “Home of a new NDA Eagle!” it announced.
By the look of her house, this girl was from a poor family. What a distance this teenager would be traversing every day to Notre Dame Academy! I don’t just mean six miles across town. Girls from far-flung suburbs travel even farther. It’s the emotional and cultural distance that strikes me as hard. What is it like to leave central city culture for the school’s predominantly suburban culture? If you’re a low-income scholarship kid, do you have to put on one persona for school and another for home? What’s it like to be in school with girls who vacation in Europe while your family worries about the rent?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but they bring up a more pressing question for the larger Catholic community: Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Are Catholic high schools supposed to be finishing schools for the affluent, with a light sprinkling of middle- and lower-income kids thrown in for good measure? With tuition at a national average of $7,000 in Catholic high schools, we are quickly pricing out families of modest means, not to mention the truly poor who stand to gain the most from our high schools.
According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), unofficial estimates of the family incomes of Catholic high school students during the 2006-07 school year show that about half the students’ families earn well above the national median household income of $48,200.
I don’t think U.S. Catholic high schools intentionally exclude poor or middle-income families. Scholarships often exist, but many families never seek them out because they see Catholic high schools as completely out of reach—something for affluent families.
Sister Mary Frances Taymans, S.N.D., executive director of the NCEA Secondary Schools Department, says that tuition has been rising faster than the cost of living lately. If parents want to send their child to college, how can they afford an expensive high school?
Yet Catholic secondary education has clearly established itself as a stepping-stone to college success, and in the United States today, college success is economic success. It is an established fact that Catholic schools have lifted people out of poverty. Many of our college-prep high schools see 99 percent of their students go on to college. The rising wealth of U.S. Catholics has been well documented by sociologists, and many observers connect that affluence at least partially to Catholic schools.
In spite of this proud record, our high schools are rapidly becoming places restricted to those with plenty of pocket change. Economic forces have put our schools under great pressure to raise tuition. The staff and teachers at our Catholic high schools deserve to be paid well—much more, in fact, than they are. It is costly to pay faculty and staff well. The days of nearly free labor from religious orders are long over.
During his April 2008 visit to Washington, Pope Benedict XVI praised the U.S. Catholic education system. He encouraged us to make our Catholic schools accessible to all by opening our wallets and getting creative in how we finance schools:
“It provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done in cooperation with the wider community to ensure that Catholic schools are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
I’m with the pope. It seems to me that the only way to keep our Catholic high schools from turning into elitist institutions is to involve the whole community. The larger Catholic community must invest in our high schools, and the secular community—foundations and philanthropists who support the outstanding moral and academic success of Catholic high schools—should also invest in our schools.
A number of schools are becoming more creative in how they finance their operations, and they are models for what needs to take place nationwide if we want to make Catholic high school again available to a broad cross-section. There are the diocesan-supported schools in Wichita, Kansas; the corporately financed Cristo Rey Network; and many other examples.
With our increasing money and clout, we Catholics who have “made it” need to dedicate ourselves to keeping the doors of our high schools open to all. In every city and town, new students should be coming from every neighborhood, not just the prestigious ones. But that can only happen if we consciously—as an entire community—choose to make it so.
We have to embrace the mission of Catholic education: to educate the whole person, mind, body, and soul. We need to want our teenagers—not just the ones in our immediate families but all the teenagers in our cities and towns—to absorb Catholic theology, social teaching, and liturgy alongside academics. If we desire these things deeply, we’ll be willing to pay for them and to work for them.
If we undertake major initiatives so that Catholic high schools open up to people of every social class, in many cities we will find that racial and economic issues will come to the forefront. If poor, middle-class, and affluent families are drawn together under the umbrella of their local Catholic high schools, we have the opportunity to listen and learn from each other.
My children have attended schools where they were the lone white faces in class. I know that some families would be uncomfortable in that situation. I know that in some cities, as demographics have shifted and neighborhood Catholic schools became poorer, more racially diverse, and increasingly non-Catholic, many white Catholic families have bailed. They won’t send their kids to schools that are “too black” or “too brown” or “too poor.”
These racial and economic dynamics are difficult issues, but they are worth talking about. Our schools provide an ideal foundation from which to address racial reconciliation and economic justice.
I’m hopeful that the common purpose of gospel values and excellent academic standards can draw together diverse groups of parents. I have seen it happen in my children’s schools. No matter our race or economic status, parents want good, holistic, and morally and educationally sound schools for their kids.
I urge the bishops of the United States to respond to the pope’s call on education with vigorous leadership. Bishops can take the lead in bringing together Catholic parents, Catholic donors, non-Catholic philanthropists, business and political leaders, and any others with a stake in strong schools. The whole community benefits when our Catholic high schools are strong, and the whole community needs to be part of the solution to rising costs.
If school presidents and high school boards make affordability a priority, then the energy needed for such a mission will follow. Alumni and families of graduates should give generously to their high schools since they have directly benefited from them. Furthermore, they should demand that the schools put a significant percentage of their donations into helping families of modest means pay for Catholic high school. Affluent families (or several families together) could “adopt a student” for four years.
Donors of all types should be asked for support. Businesses, foundations, philanthropists, all Catholics in a school’s locale, and people of goodwill who want to alleviate poverty should be asked to support projects specifically aimed at bringing in and supporting lower-income students as they progress through Catholic high school. Quality education and faith formation prevents poverty and creates positive social benefits throughout the lives of graduates. There are many possibilities once we make access a priority.
The doors of our Catholic high schools are starting to shut on low- and middle-income families. Let’s not allow that to happen. As we find creative ways to make our schools open to all, I’ll keep planting yard signs.
"Catholic high schools aren't just for the rich" appeared in the November 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (pgs. 17-21); Volume 73, Number 11.
If I were in charge of the Catholic high schools in my diocese, in order to keep them affordable to everyone I would. . .
Try to instill the stewardship program in every parish.
Partner with public high schools to handle our students half the day. They could teach math, science, and certain non-academic classes such as “shop.”
Establish an income-producing investment fund.
Lawrence B. Hoge
Charge tuition based on income.
Work with alumni to encourage fundraising, scholarships, bequests. Help junior high kids’ parents plan ahead.
Urge my bishop to do all he can to promote vouchers for use in private schools. Solicit financial support from foundations and corporations.
Lake Forest, Ill.
Reality check: It’ll never happen. I’m a priest in a diocese where every Catholic high school has closed because of low enrollment. Here the grave is closed and sealed. There’ll be no resurrection.
Father Mike Haney, O.F.M.
Allot a small portion of tuition toward those who can’t afford to pay. Or allot x number of service hours to x dollars in tuition. If students serve their diocese, their diocese can give back to them.
Tinley Park, Ill.
In Minnesota the public schools are 98 percent top notch. I would close all “elite Catholic high schools” here and open Catholic schools where the public schools need competition.
New Prague, Minn.
Utilize Americorps volunteers as teachers, make volunteering for school services mandatory for parents, and make sure every school has at least one part-time grant writer on staff.
St. Petersburg, Fla.
I would or would not send my child to a Catholic high school because . . .
I would if I hit the lotto or an unbelievable good fortune.
Carol Stream, Ill.
Having taught in and sent my children to Catholic high schools, I see the value of the prayer, retreats, high standards, and outstanding education.
I would because too many public schools have severe discipline problems.
Robert E. Casey
I wouldn’t because public schools in my district have more offerings, more diversity, and a high percentage of students attending college.
I would because it is imperative that we as parents carry out the commitments we were entrusted with at our childrens’ Baptisms. We need to instill in them a moral compass to guide them throughout their journeys.
Richard A. Gaietto
I would. The high school years present an opportunity to help young people forge their personal identities, develop their relationships with God, form lifelong friendships, and discern their vocations. This is a window of human development the church simply can’t ignore.
Lake Shore, Minn.
I would not. I think it is important to support public education and for Catholic students to mix with the general population. Youth who are active in parish youth programs can be leaven for their peers in the public schools.
To help keep Catholic high schools open to all, I personally would be willing to . . .
Sponsor a student—not through a quota system but through merit.
Support federally funded vouchers.
Deacon Thomas V. Johnston
Volunteer in study halls and libraries, as I have. Also I would tutor students in subjects in which I feel comfortable.
I have worked in Catholic high schools for 35 years. My co-workers and I make 30 to 50 percent less than public school teachers. We make this sacrifice because we believe in our mission. My school continues to offer more financial aid.
Arlington Heights, Ill.
Open the checkbook.
Fort Worth, Texas
Send my children to one! I know so many Catholic parents who don’t because they feel they are being “hit up” twice: high suburban property taxes and then tuition.
Have part of my parish contribution support the Catholic high school.
The biggest benefit of Catholic high schools is . . .
It makes a well-rounded teen move into a world of religious plurality with a sense of who they are as a Catholic.
Learning the Catholic social gospel and serving the needs of the less fortunate. If a student doesn’t graduate with that spirit, the Catholic school failed.
Jo Ann K. Jones
The participation of many Catholic high school graduates in parish and community life as they become adults.
Mervin J. Hood
Fort Dodge, Iowa
None. The graduates of the high school our parish supports aren’t deeply involved in the parish. I sing in the choir, and we never have graduates from the Catholic high school. They say they had enough of that in high school.
Mason City, Iowa
In our diocese we are struggling to keep our Catholic grade schools open. I can’t imagine how financially difficult this would be on our parishes if they were asked to support high schools as well.
South Range, Wis.
I don’t want businesses supporting Catholic high schools. If we believe schools are necessary, then we should support them. They should be our schools.
I will quickly lose my passion for Catholic schooling if Catholic teaching begins to be de-emphasized or taught by those who do not know the faith, as at some of our liberal Catholic colleges.
Personally I think the time for Catholic schools has come and gone. They are an enormous drain on resources that could be spent on innovative faith formation programs. Parents would be free to help correct what is wrong with some public schools, and parishes would be free to concentrate on teaching religion instead of computers skills.
The end of Catholic schools will be the end of the Catholicism in our country.
We need to hear more good press about just how wonderful a Catholic education is. The good news needs to be disseminated to the general population, not just within Catholic circles.