Club sports or Catholic school? On affordability and Catholic education

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the New York Times today comes another depressing story about Catholic schools closing. Titled “Teachers Ask About Mission They Lived By,” the article discusses the closing of Holy Spirit School, in the Bronx.

The article doesn’t explain why the school is insolvent, except to note, “Some of the financial problems are owing to the church’s own lies and omissions around the sexual abuse scandals involving priests.” That’s probably true, but it’s hard to verify the impact of those scandals. Moreover, the financial challenges that Catholic schools face are far more complicated. In my role as director of admissions, I am constantly speaking with parents about financial aid, and I know that the situation is not as dire as it’s often portrayed.

I am not going to pretend to solve it here, but I do want to make a point that I’ve not seen made elsewhere: Catholic schools are not as unaffordable as it might seem. Don’t get me wrong; I understand quite well (and gut-wrenchingly so) that many families endure genuine financial hardship, a hardship that the Great Recessions has made even worse. But I also know that it’s easy to overstate the claim that Catholic school tuition is too expensive. In many cases, it’s not that families cannot afford Catholic school; it’s that they choose not to afford it. Families, in other words, often have the discretionary income to pay tuition, but they have already decided to channel it elsewhere.

Catholic schools now must compete against a number of other institutions and services wanting our money. What do I mean? Consider just a sampling…

Club sports: To win a college scholarship and to gain the gaze of scouts, it’s not enough to compete on the high school team. It requires (so parents are led to believe) a twelve-month commitment of practice and games — games which are often many miles from home. Participation in the club team can cost upwards of $1000 per month once one includes not only the membership fee itself, but also gear, uniforms, and gas money.

Cable/phone: Cable packages now run between $75 and $300/month, and our phone bills have increased — according to this CNNMoney article — by 31% since 2009. In 2012, the average cell phone bill was $71/month for the individual user; for the family of four, it was inching toward $200/month. This is extraordinary. Remember the old school phone in the living room? I think I remember my parents paying around $15 or $20 per month for a basic land line.

Hulu/Netflix: We are an oversubscribed nation. People now subscribe to online services that, although are individually cheap, add up. Hulu and Netflix are both $8 per month. There are also a number of other subscription-based online enticements that are seductively simple and initially guilt-free but which eat away at the checking account. And if families are downloading songs on iTunes…

There’s also the general trend in our culture to spend money we don’t have or to spend money without thinking. Consider the ease of auto-pay. I can buy and download a book from Amazon in just seconds. I don’t have the natural deterrent of getting in my car and driving to the store, factors that might normally delay or prevent spending money. How many of these type of purchases have encouraged us to squander hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars? What if we saved that money for tuition?

I could go on. The main point is that families today often possess the income but choose to direct it elsewhere. One parent recently admitted to me that his family could afford to pay the tuition at my school, but he said he would rather spend money on club sports. The man and his family are practicing Catholics, but four years of a Catholic education at a Jesuit high school was not, in his mind, as valuable as club sports. I gave my closing argument on my school’s behalf, but he was unpersuaded.

While that family was Catholic, many are not, or many are not practicing. So the willingness not to spend on Catholic education is aggravated by the refusal to give any premium to learning that occurs within the sign of the cross.

Now, in some cases families might be right to reject Catholic schools. If Catholic schools don’t provide a better experience than what’s offered for free, families should not pay for it.

So here’s the situation: Catholic school tuition has increased in the midst of a rise in competing demands on people’s money. My guess is that tuition assistance has not increased proportionally. Combine this with a general movement toward secularism and a decreasing emphasis on parish life, and you get to the predicament that Catholic schools are in today.

This is not to say all is lost. I have written frequently about the glories and the necessity of Catholic education. I believe it’s a steal and, more than that, redemptive for the modern world. But Catholic schools have to continue to be creative in how they market their mission and how they capture the attention of parents. It can be done, and successfully so.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Related articles/posts by Matt Emerson:

Ignatian Education in the Age of YouTube (The Ignatian Educator)

Preambles for Faith (America Magazine)

Help Their Unbelief (America Magazine)

Catholic Education Matters (Patheos)

Unraveling the Mystery of Catechesis (Patheos)

Teaching to the Tests of Faith (Patheos)



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