Aid Is Increased to Help Keep Struggling Families From Removing Students

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Braced for decreased enrollment because of the deteriorating economy, the Washington region's struggling Catholic schools are boosting financial aid and offering other help to keep financially strapped parents from pulling their children out of the parochial education system.

The recession couldn't come at a worse time for Catholic schools, which are under deepening financial duress.

Enrollment has been declining for years because Catholic couples have been having fewer children, urban Catholics have been moving to the suburbs and Catholic families' attachment to a religious education has been weakening. Costs have soared as poor non-Catholic children requiring financial aid have poured into the schools to escape low-quality public schools and as the Catholic schools' traditional teachers -- members of religious orders -- have been replaced by higher-paid lay educators.

But the recession is exacerbating the forces straining the schools, which educate about 50,000 students in the Washington area.

"Any kind of issues that we had before have just been intensified by the concern over the economy," said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien blames the economy for a sudden 5 percent drop in enrollment this academic year -- twice the average decline of the previous five years for the archdiocese, which includes Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

"I don't know what else to tag it to," O'Brien said. "That extra [decline] had to be people just pulling the reins on their budgets."

The enrollment picture could worsen during the next academic year, O'Brien said. "People are going to be strained economically -- losing their job or worried that they might lose their job next year -- and are going to look for some places to cut."

To retain students whose parents have hit rocky financial times, dioceses are increasing financial aid for next year, extending financial aid deadlines and offering emergency aid for this year for families facing sudden setbacks who are unable to pay tuition, which runs between $4,000 and $18,000 a year.

The Arlington Diocese, which has about 18,000 students, has increased its financial aid from $1.7 million to $2 million for next year. It is also offering $250,000 this year for people in immediate need, said Sister Bernadette McManigal, interim schools superintendent.

She expects the money to run out quickly. "I probably could use a half-million just for immediate need," she said.

The Archdiocese of Washington, which has 98 schools and 30,000 students, has doubled its financial aid for the 2009-10 academic year to $4 million.

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