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Losing Students, Private Schools Try to Change

Private schools are lowering tuition, ramping up marketing and targeting traditionally underrepresented communities to reverse a national enrollment decline.

Enrollment in private schools for grades pre-K to 12, including parochial schools, dropped by 14%—to 6.3 million in 2016 from 7.3 million in 2006, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall school enrollment was nearly flat during that time, with public schools educating 2% more students to reach almost 52 million in 2016, the data shows.

Researchers and private-school associations attribute the decline to a host of factors: more affordable Catholic schools have closed; traditional public schools provide better options; families cut their budgets after the 2007 recession; and charter schools and other alternatives have expanded. School voucher programs and tax-credit scholarship programs have spread to just over a dozen states and are believed to have helped private-school enrollment some, but not enough to make up losses dating back years.