What To Know About Catholic Schools

catholic school

Jonathan Kim / Getty Images

Whether you are deciding where to enroll your child for kindergarten, or what middle school or high school to send them to, choosing the right school for your child can feel like a very weighty decision.

If you are leaning toward a private education for your child, you have likely considered a Catholic school. After all, Catholic schools have the highest enrollments and the greatest number of schools in operation of all private schools in America.

Still, it can be difficult to decide if a Catholic school education is right for your child. Maybe you are concerned about sending your child to a religion-based school in the first place. Perhaps you are not sure if Catholic schools would provide the right kind of educational focus for your child. You might just be looking for more information about Catholic schools in general, and what a Catholic school education looks like.

Let’s take a look at some information and important statistics about Catholic schools to help guide your decision.

History of Catholic Schools in America

Although Catholics were part of the American landscape dating back to the early 1600s, there was a lot of backlash against Catholicism among early English colonists. However, the Catholic religion continued to spread, and in 1783, the first Catholic parochial school, St. Mary’s School, opened in Philadelphia.

During the mid-19th century, as Catholic immigration began to expand in America, so did interest in Catholic education. By 1900, there were about 100 Catholic high schools in America, and by 1920, that number increased to 1,500. Enrollment continued to increase over the next few decades, reaching a peak in the 1960s, with about 5.2 million students American students enrolled in Catholic high schools.

Catholic School Enrollment Today

After U.S. Catholic school enrollment peaked in the 1960s, enrollment began to decline. According to The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), there was a sharp decline in enrollment during the 1970s and 1980s, though by the mid-1990s to 200, enrollment increased by 1.3%.

Since then, there has been even more of a decline in terms of enrollment, with many Catholic schools closing their doors, particularly at the elementary level. Still, enrollment at Catholic schools remains strong, as Catholic school education is the most popular parochial education in America.

NCEA statistics for the 2021-2022 school year are as follows:

  • There are 5,938 Catholic schools operating today
  • 4,765 of these are elementary schools, and 1,173 are secondary schools
  • Total enrollment in Catholic schools is 1,688,417
  • The highest enrollment is in elementary schools at 1,167,917 students
  • There are 520,500 students enrolled in secondary schools

Who Are Catholic Schools Popular With?

Catholic schools are most popular with white Catholic families. However, Catholic schools have a long history of welcoming and supporting minority and lower-income students, and are among the most racially and economically diverse private schools in America.

According to the NCEA, racially diverse populations accounted for 20.7% of Catholic school populations in 2017. The Hispanic/Latino population comprised the majority of that diversity, at 16.8%, followed by the Black population at 7.8%, and then the Asian population at 5.4%.

Although Catholic schools require tuition—which means that families of certain economic classes may be excluded from a Catholic school education—many schools offer scholarships to economically disadvantaged students. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 45% of American Catholic schools participate in Federal Nutrition Programs, which provide about 270,000 free meals to children on a daily basis.

Do You Have to Be Catholic to Attend Catholic School?

Many people assume that you have to be Catholic in order to attend a Catholic school. And while Catholic schools may have been dominated by Catholics for decades, things have changed and many non-Catholics attend Catholic school these days.

334,887 non-Catholic students enrolled in Catholic schools during the 2018-2019 year, according to the NCEA. That’s 18.7% of total Catholic school enrollment!

While it’s true that Catholic schools have a fair amount of religion-based instruction, most academic subject classes do not, and this makes up the majority of the school day for most Catholic schools. Many Catholic schools happily open up their doors to non-Catholics.

What Is the Educational Approach of Catholic Schools?

Academic Flexibility

Like most private schools, Catholic schools are not beholden to federally regulated educational standards in the same way that public schools are. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Catholic schools do not have rigorous academic standards in place—most absolutely do—but it means that they don’t need to follow things like “common core” standards or participate in as many standardized tests as public schools do.

Religious Education

Because Catholic schools are religious in nature, there is a fair amount of religious observance and education built into a typical day. Most schools have morning prayers, prayers before meals, and require at least one religion class per day. However, the rest of the daily schedule includes core academic subjects, such as math, English, history, and science.

Community Service

Catholic schools have a history of requiring students to serve their community and get involved with positive causes, such as volunteering in local soup kitchens or at senior centers. Many schools require community service as part of their curriculums.


Most Catholic schools require a school uniform, which has pluses and minuses. Some students feel that they can’t express themselves creatively if they are made to wear a uniform daily. On the other hand, many feel that uniforms decrease competition among students, and encourage good behavior. Parents often appreciate the fact that the daily decision of what to wear is much less complicated when uniforms are the only option.

Here are some basic educational statistics about Catholic schools, courtesy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the NCEA:

  • There are 151,101 staff members teaching at Catholic schools; only 2.8% of staff is comprised of religious or clergy persons
  • Student/teacher ratio in Catholic schools averages 13:1
  • 99% of high school students attending Catholic schools go on to graduate
  • 86% of high school graduates attend 4-year universities
  • The majority of Catholic schools are co-ed, but 30% of secondary schools are single-sex

Special Needs and Gifted Children

Like other American private schools, Catholic schools are not obligated by law to provide special education services to their students. The same is true for gifted children. However, all Catholic schools are different, and many hire staff specifically trained in meeting the needs of special needs students or students with disabilities.

Many Catholic Schools will provide enrichment for gifted students. There are even some Catholic schools out there that specialize in students with disabilities. If you have a special needs or gifted child, it is worth inquiring about accommodations at any school you are interested in.

Tuition and Fees

According to Niche, while private schools are sometimes cost-prohibitive to families, Catholic schools offer some of the most affordable tuitions among private schools. The average cost of a Catholic elementary school is about $4,400 per year. That number jumps to $9,840 per year for Catholic high schools. However, almost all Catholic schools offer financial aid, according to the NCEA, and it’s recommended that you discuss any financial aid options with a school you are interested in.

Pros and Cons of Catholic Schools

Still unsure about whether or not Catholic school is right for you and your family? Here are the most common pros and cons of a Catholic school education.


  • Small class size, high graduation rates, academic vigor
  • If you are a practicing Catholic, immersion in religious studies on a regular basis might be important to you
  • Catholic schools often boost high parental involvement and have many community events
  • The community service aspect of Catholic schools teaches many enduring life lessons for children


  • If you are not a practicing Catholic, you might be wary of the religious aspects of a Catholic education
  • Not all Catholic schools can accommodate special needs or gifted students
  • Even with financial aid, tuition may be prohibitive to you
  • You may not want you child to wear a uniform everyday, and you might want your child to go to school in a more diverse environment

A Word From Verywell

It’s important to note that when it comes to Catholic schools, there is a lot of variety—really, all Catholic schools are different. Some Catholic schools are more strict and traditional; others are more open-minded and diverse. Some Catholic schools are considered more elite, have high-standards for admittance, and even wait-lists for entry. Other schools are easier to get into, and welcome a broad range of academic levels.

Probably the best way to get a feel for a school that you are interested in is to visit the school itself. Do the kids seem happy? Is the staff enthusiastic and caring? What kinds of programs and extracurriculars does the school offer? Maybe most importantly, could you see your child thriving there?

It’s also wise to speak to other parents who have sent their kids to a particular school—they will give the most honest reviews.

When it comes down to it, it’s usually best to check your parental gut on big decisions like where to send your child to school. You know best what is right for your child and your family.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Catholic Educational Association. Catholic school data.

  2. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic school FACT sheet.

  3. Niche. Why you might consider a Catholic school (even if you're not Catholic). Updated May 2019.

Additional Reading
  • History of the catholic church in the united states. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website. Updated 2019. 

  • Student race and ethnicity. National Catholic Educational Association website. Updated 2019.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.