My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education
There was a time when a Catholic education was not a status symbol. Parochial schools were created out of a perceived necessity in the 19th century, intended to protect immigrant populations in large cities from the dangers of Protestantism. To make a broad generalization, for over 100 years Catholicism was seen as a blue-collar faith, popular among those hyphenated communities which had immigrated to America from places like Ireland, Germany and Italy. The schools they attended were a reflection of this cultural and the class they inhabited.
Many of the kids I went to school with in the 80s and 90s also came from blue collar backgrounds. My father was a welder and my mother worked for the post office. By my estimate about 20% of the kids in my grade school had a parent at the local GE plant. These types of professions were typical. To be sure, we had some kids from well-off homes but they were in the minority. While my school at that time was a pretty decent model of economic diversity, the perception from outside the walls was that we were all rich kids. Never mind the reality, in those days if your parents were willing to write a check for your education you were seen by many as an elitist.
The truth is that I attended Catholic schools at the end of a long era of affordability. For decades parochial education was subsidized by a large supply of clergy. When most of your staff has taken a vow of poverty it certainly keeps overhead down. As the number of clergy began to dwindle in size during the 1980s, tuition rates began to creep upwards. For comparison my high school alma mater charged about $150 per year when it opened in 1953. By the time I graduated 40 years later, tuition had risen to about $2,700, Still affordable enough that I could pay it myself with a part-time job bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Today this would be impossible. A full year at the school I attended costs roughly $12,000.
While prices were soaring, Catholic schools were also getting recognition as models for what a top-tier education could look like. The schools embraced this image and today most Catholic high schools have become prep academies that serve a niche market of parents that can afford the best for their children. The high school I attended has evolved into something that still resembles the place where I was educated, but it has also become so much more. I’m actually kind of jealous of the kids that attend these days and perhaps this motivates me to stay involved. I served for years as an active volunteer and this past year I joined the Alumni Board of Directors.
This is the point where I begin to acknowledge my hypocrisy. Neither of my daughters attended private school. We simply couldn’t afford it. And my parents couldn’t have afforded it at similar prices when I was a student myself. This creates an odd dichotomy for myself as I represent the institution as an ambassador to prospective students, their parents and the local community. What pains me is that I believe so much in the mission of the school and everything they stand for. I truly believe they are helping to create tomorrow’s leaders and the young men I meet there are impressive individuals. They also care about the legacy of those that went before which is why as an alumni I have had some amazing opportunities to help plan for the future.
The irony here is that while I came from a solidly middle-class background, I was lucky enough to attend a now-prestigious prep school because the economics were different back then. Today I get credit for an expensive education that I didn’t actually pay for. I feel like the inner-city kid that won a scholarship to Harvard and after graduating everyone assumes they were born to money…only I didn’t have to bust my ass to get there. I simply benefited from a system that no longer exists. Attending school events these days makes me feel like I am leading double-life. Middle class family man by day, elite prep school graduate by night.
One thing I take comfort in is the aggressive mission of my alma mater to raise financial aid money so as to try to make this type of education accessible to as many as possible. With a cap on enrollment there is hope that some day they can create a large enough endowment that every student will attend at only a fraction of the actual costs, but this goal is still a long way off.
The once erroneous perception that a Catholic education was only for the well-off has now become a reality. What does this mean for a faith with deep roots in the middle class? Whereas parochial schools were the norm for most Catholic children a half-century ago, will there be a day when American Catholics become sharply divided among the haves and have-nots, with a private education being the wedge? I don’t know what the future holds for us, but right now is a time of great change for Catholic education and it remains to be seen how things will play out.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is also one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.