Catholic Schools or School Quality? The Effects of Catholic Schools on Labor Market Outcomes

Author(s): Young-Joo Kim

Source: Kim, Young-Joo. 2011. “Catholic Schools or School Quality? The Effects of Catholic Schools on Labor Market Outcomes.” Economics of Education Review. 30(3): 546–558.


Researchers interested in comparisons between public and private schools have long debated the existence and nature of a “Catholic school effect,” which suggests a positive influence on achievement for Catholic school students compared with public school students, but might be accounted for by selection effect, such that students who are enrolled in Catholic schools share characteristics other than Catholic school attendance that explain the achievement gap. Young-Joo contributes to this ongoing debate by analyzing differences in wages at adulthood given a measure of school quality which had not previously been a part of the dialogue about Catholic school advantages. The author finds that school quality and selection biases account for the majority of achievement differences.

The primary source of data is the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), a survey of a random sample of approximately 3,500 Wisconsin high school students fielded in 1957, 1975, and 1992.  The sample is primarily white, with about 400 respondents attending Catholic Schools.  The WLS provided data on the students and their backgrounds, including total years in school, IQ score, religion, parents' education, family size, and if both parents lived together.  Additional school-level information such as class size, course attendance, and teachers’ educational levels and years of teaching experience were obtained from diocesan and public school district reports.  Further, the author included in the analysis the county-level density of the Catholic population in 1890 as well as the current density of Catholics in order to control for contextual effects.  

The author reports that in 1975, Catholic school graduates earned approximately 20 percent higher wages than those who graduated from public school.  The difference in wages was reduced to 18 percent in 1992.  After accounting for individual factors, school level and school sector accounted for about half of the observed wage difference in 1974 (most of this was from school-level variables), and an insigifnificant one-third of the wage difference in 1992.  The results demonstrate that the majority of the Catholic school effect can be derived from observable differences in school-level variables such as class size, teachers’ credentials, and differences in curricular requirements.

This article makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion concerning the achievement gap between Catholic and public school graduates.  Although the author interprets results in this study to mean that there were no Catholic school effects because most of the non-individual level results were explained by school-level factors, we suggest that these results actually help explain how the Catholic school effect works.  

The author demonstrates that Catholic school graduates benefit from school attributes, such as teachers’ credentials, class size, and curricular requirements that ensure that Catholic school students take more English and math courses than do public school students.  This study provides evidence that these are some of the mechanisms through which a Catholic school advantage, in terms of income, was operating for graduates in the mid-1950s.  Differences in curricula are likely a direct influence of the Catholic school design and mission, while smaller class sizes and higher percentages of teachers who have earned advanced degrees likely have indirect influences on outcomes such as social cohesion within the schools, more opportunities for interactions with teachers, and, given the low financial return to advanced degree investment, intentional commitment to the Catholic school mission on the part of teachers, all which contribute to student success.    

One fairly troublesome limitation of this article is that it doesn’t account for differences in occupation.  It’s very possible that Catholic school attendance in adolescence could influence career selection (either directly or via selection into particular types of colleges and universities) in such a way that income is not a valid measure of success. It’s possible that a portion Catholic school graduates are more likely to select into fields that pay less (social services, education) than do the jobs selected by public school graduates, thereby potential depressing the Catholic school effect.  In addition, number of years in the workforce was not accounted for in this study.  Given the family formation patterns typical of Catholic school families, we can assume that female graduates of Catholic schools might have incomes lower than female public school graduates in absolute terms, but relatively higher when workforce tenure is accounted for, which suggests, again, that the Catholic school effect reported here might be understated. 

In addition, it must be noted that this article uses data that measures differences in wages for high school graduates in the mid-1950s, so while the results give us an idea about how and Catholic schools might be serving their students better than are public schools, it’s also possible that the data represent both Catholic schools and public schools in a very different era, and might not be relevant for schools today. 

Keywords: Catholic school effect, Selection effect, Income

Sector: Catholic,  Public

Outcomes: School Choice,  Work and Occupations

Date Posted: 2016-03-22