America’s private elementary schools increasingly serve the affluent


America’s private elementary schools increasingly serve the affluent

As the number of Catholic schools drops, fewer middle-income families enroll

July 12, 2018—Once dominating America’s private-school landscape, Catholic schools have succumbed to widespread closures—enrolling 89 percent of private-school students in 1965, they now serve only 42 percent—creating a hole in a sector that once served substantially more middle-income families. In a new article for Education Next, Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University, Preeya P. Mbekeani, and Anne Lamb of the Harvard Graduate School of Education examine private-school enrollment trends over the last 50 years, finding growing segregation of enrollment by family income.

Between 1958 and 2015, overall enrollment in private elementary schools declined from 15 to 9 percent, but the decline was steepest among middle-income families. Murnane, Reardon, Mbekeani, and Lamb find that from 1968 to 2013, the proportion of children from middle-income families enrolled in such schools declined by almost half while the proportions of enrolled children from affluent and low-income families held steady. Over this period, the gap in enrollment rates between high- and middle-income families, called the 90-50 gap, widened from 5.5 to 9.3 percentage points. They attribute the gap in part to the sweeping closure of affordable Catholic school programs, which declined by 37 percent between 1970 and 2010, compounded by climbing tuitions throughout the private sector. Though middle-income families experienced an average income increase of 23 percent over this period, Catholic-school tuition rates increased more than fivefold, from an average of $873 in 1970 to $5,858 in 2010 (dollars adjusted for inflation). Tuitions at both non-Catholic religious and nonsectarian private schools also increased more rapidly than median incomes during this period.

Other key private-school enrollment trends:

Shift to non-religious schools. Many affluent families have shifted from religious to non-religious schools over the last four decades. The 90-50 enrollment rate gap in these schools grew from 1 percentage point in 1969 to almost 5 percentage points in 2011.

Black and Hispanic families. For black families across the income distribution, private school enrollment rates ticked up between 1 and 3 percentage points from 1969 to 2013. Conversely, private-school enrollment rates fell over this period for Hispanic families across the income distribution, with the fastest rate of decline for children from middle-income Hispanic families, whose rates fell from 15 percent to 3 percent. The decline was modest for children from high-income families, falling from 18 percent to 15 percent, growing the 90-50 gap among Hispanic families from 3 points in 1969 to 12 points in 2013.

Urban versus suburban. Private-school enrollment rates are consistently higher among families living in cities than among families with similar income levels living in suburbs, although enrollment fell across all groups between 1968 and 2013. The gap in enrollment between middle-income and high-income families grew more among urban families than among suburban families.

Regional differences. The percentage of students from high-income families enrolled in private school fell by almost half in the Northeast and Midwest while increasing in the West and South. The 90-50 gap grew much more in the South—doubling since 1968 to reach 14 percentage points—than in other regions.

American private schools as a whole are becoming less diverse as well as less accessible for middle-income families, the analysis reveals. “These trends indicate an increasingly polarized pattern of school enrollment. As a result, American schools—both public and private—are increasingly segregated by income,” the authors conclude.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Who Goes to Private School? Long-term enrollment trends by family income” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, July 17 on and will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 30, 2018.

About the Authors: Richard J. Murnane is Thompson Research Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Sean F. Reardon is the Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Preeya P. Mbekeani and Anne Lamb are doctoral students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College