The Catholic School Advantage in a Changing Social Landscape: Consistency or Increasing Fragility?

Author(s): Kendralin J. Freeman and Mark Berends

Source: Freeman, Kendralin J., and Mark Berends. 2016. “The Catholic School Advantage in a Changing Social Landscape: Consistency or Increasing Fragility?” Journal of School Choice 10(1):22-47.



As the debate surrounding how best to deal with educational inequality in the United States continues, policy makers have turned to school choice as a possible solution for dealing with persistent disparities in student outcomes. Catholic schools, in particular, have been found to produce students with generally higher educational outcomes, but there is debate as to whether or not this effect is due to the practices of the schools themselves, or rather simply a product of the selection of a certain type of student into Catholic schools. With this debate in mind, Freeman and Berends use longitudinal survey data to examine how school sector influences students’ college-going behavior. They find that Catholic school graduates are more likely than their public school-educated peers to enroll in college, but the two groups do not differ significantly in terms of the type of institution they choose to attend. The paper also includes an examination of how the benefits of Catholic school attendance have changed over time, finding that shifting demographics in the United States and changes in the Catholic church have led to a decrease in the magnitude of the Catholic school advantage since the 1980s.

Background and Research Questions

Freeman and Berends begin by laying out the current research on whether or not the Catholic school advantage (CSA) exists. Generally, Catholic school graduates are believed to have higher educational outcomes compared to public school graduates. Empirical support for this belief links Catholic school attendance to achievement during elementary and secondary education. In this study, the authors take the question of the CSA to the next level of education, exploring how Catholic school attendance affects college enrollment and school choice.  The authors hypothesize that the overall effect size of the CSA for this outcome will be smaller than that found in previous studies, but that Catholic school graduates will differ qualitatively from their public school peers in terms of the types of schools they choose to attend, with Catholic schools channeling students into four-year programs and selective institutions rather than two-year or technical programs.

The authors also express interest in how the CSA has changed over time in response to transformations in the social and educational environment in which Catholic schools operate in the United States. On the social side, both the United States and the Catholic church have experienced rather dramatic shifts in recent years, with the United States experiencing a major demographic shift and many dioceses within the Church shrinking and, consequently, shutting down parochial schools. Catholic schools, too, have new competitors for possible students in the form of charter schools, which the authors state typically draw their students from the same pool of young people. In light of these changes, the authors compare their findings with those of past work on the CSA to answer the question of how the benefits of Catholic school education have changed over time.

CSA and College Attendance

The authors utilize individual-level survey data from the first three waves of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a longitudinal study of American youth and their families. The study, administered as an assisted survey via telephone, followed participants over the course of 2001-2013 and solicited data on (among other things) participants’ educational activities and outcomes, religious participation and beliefs, and demographic characteristics. College enrollment is measured in this paper when respondents were ages 18 – 23.  Freeman and Berends supplemented these data with material from the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS), a comprehensive database containing information about higher education institutions throughout the country. IPEDS data provided information about the institutions that NSYR participants reported attending, allowing researchers to determine institutional type (i.e. two-year versus four-year) and selectivity. Researchers specifically asked whether participants attended any post-secondary school at all, whether they attended a four-year school or a two-year or technical school; if the school they attended was a public, Catholic private, or other religious private institution; and the selectivity of the institution the student decided to attend, based on entrance exam scores, admissions policies, and other factors.

Freeman and Berends analyze this data using propensity score matching, a technique that allows the authors to compare Catholic school students to public school students who are very similar in terms of background characteristics such as demographics, high school achievement, and home environment. Propensity score matching allows the researchers to set up a pseudo-experiment after the fact to examine how students with similar backgrounds but different educational histories might choose different post-secondary pathways. The authors are careful to note that propensity score matching only allows them to match students based on observable characteristics, and that students may indeed differ in terms of characteristics that are not captured in the data.

­­The authors find that Catholic school graduates are about 10% more likely than their public school peers to attend any post-secondary institution, net of other background characteristics. Catholic school attendance also seems to have a similarly-sized effect on the likelihood of attending a four-year school and has no effect on attending a two-year or technical school. These effects seem to be the limit of the CSA; Catholic school graduates are no more likely than public school graduates to attend selective schools, and secondary school type seems to have no effect on whether a student chooses to attend a public, Catholic, or other religious post-secondary institution.

The CSA over Time

To answer the question of how the CSA has changed over time, the authors compare their results to those of five previous studies on the topic that used different datasets and methods. They find that the effect sizes found in their project (10%, as seen above) are smaller than most of the effect sizes found in previous work.


Freeman and Berends make a convincing argument for the existence of the CSA, using sound methods and a dataset particularly suited to the analysis to show that, whatever the mechanism may be, Catholic schools do produce more college enrollees than public schools. Though the article does not seem to be a necessary extension of the literature on the CSA—the authors cite several studies that have already found that Catholic school graduates are more likely to enroll in college—the argument that recent changes in the Catholic church and throughout the country necessitate revisiting the question of the CSA’s existence holds water. Still, given the importance of college completion over college enrollment in terms of long-term economic outcomes, the authors’ argument in favor of the existence of the CSA would be more convincing if they had examined completion instead of enrollment.  The age of respondents in the third wave of the NSYR constrained them in this sense, so further research can be done using the fourth wave of NSYR data, which allows for more time between high school graduation and the point of data collection.

The biggest blind spot of the article, however, is that the authors (like most other CSA scholars) examine Catholic schools in comparison to public schools but not in relation to other private schools. It is entirely possible that the Catholic school advantage is just a “not public school advantage,” and that students from secular private schools, other religious private schools, and charter and magnet schools also experience the same bump in college attendance rates since opting out of public school is usually an indicator of higher levels of parental involvement and investment in education. That parental involvement and investment may be the actual driving factor in college attendance rates, rather than any mechanism specific to Catholic schools. Broader comparisons between Catholic schools and other types of non-public schools are needed to know for sure.

Keywords: CSA, Catholic school advantage, college enrollment

Sector: Catholic,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  School Choice

Date Posted: 2017-04-19