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School Choice in the United States: 2019

Indicator 3: Private Schools and Enrollment

In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students (10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools. Thirty-six percent of private school students were enrolled in Catholic schools, 13 percent were enrolled in conservative Christian schools, 10 percent were enrolled in affiliated religious schools, 16 percent were enrolled in unaffiliated religious schools, and 24 percent were enrolled in nonsectarian schools.

Private elementary and secondary schools are educational institutions that are not primarily supported by public funds. In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, accounting for 10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary school enrollment. The pupil/teacher ratio was 11.9 at private schools, which was lower than the ratio of 16.2 at public schools. This indicator describes the characteristics of students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, with a focus on how these characteristics vary by religious orientation of the schools. Data come from the Private School Universe Survey (PSS).

This indicator groups private schools into the following five categories based on the school’s religious orientation: Catholic, conservative Christian, affiliated religious (schools that are affiliated with denominations other than Catholic or conservative Christian), unaffiliated religious (schools that have a religious orientation or purpose but are not affiliated with any specific denomination), and nonsectarian (schools that are not religiously affiliated). In fall 2015, of the 34,600 private elementary and secondary schools in the United States, 20 percent were Catholic schools, 12 percent were conservative Christian schools, 9 percent were affiliated religious schools, 26 percent were unaffiliated religious schools, and 33 percent were nonsectarian schools. Of the 5.8 million students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, 36 percent were enrolled in Catholic schools, 13 percent were enrolled in conservative Christian schools, 10 percent were enrolled in affiliated religious schools, 16 percent were enrolled in unaffiliated religious schools, and 24 percent were enrolled in nonsectarian schools.1


Figure 3.1. Percentage distribution of elementary and secondary enrollment, by private school religious orientation, public school type, and student race/ethnicity: Fall 2015

Figure 3.1. Percentage distribution of elementary and secondary enrollment, by private school religious orientation, public school type, and student race/ethnicity: Fall 2015

# Rounds to zero.
1 Race/ethnicity was not collected for prekindergarten students at private schools (846,900 out of 5,750,520 students in 2015), thus this figure only includes private enrollment in kindergarten through grade 12. Percentage distribution is based on the students for whom race/ethnicity was reported.
2 Affiliated religious schools belong to associations of schools with a specific religious orientation other than Catholic or conservative Christian. Unaffiliated religious schools have a religious orientation or purpose but are not classified as Catholic, conservative Christian, or affiliated.
NOTE: Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16; and Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 205.30; and Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 216.30.


In fall 2015, some 69 percent of all private elementary and secondary students were White, 9 percent were Black, 10 percent were Hispanic, 6 percent were Asian, 1 percent were Pacific Islander, one-half of 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 4 percent were of Two or more races. In comparison, 50 percent of traditional public school students in fall 2015 were White, 15 percent were Black, 26 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were Asian, less than one-half of 1 percent were Pacific Islander, 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3 percent were of Two or more races. For public charter school students, 33 percent were White, 27 percent were Black, 32 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Asian, less than one-half of 1 percent were Pacific Islander, 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3 percent were of Two or more races.2 Similar to the overall pattern for all private elementary and secondary students, White students constituted the largest share of enrollment across all five categories of private schools: Catholic (66 percent), conservative Christian (70 percent), affiliated religious (76 percent), unaffiliated religious (74 percent), and nonsectarian (65 percent). Black students made up the second-largest share of enrollment at conservative Christian schools (11 percent), affiliated religious schools (8 percent), and unaffiliated religious schools (12 percent); Hispanic students made up the second-largest share of enrollment at Catholic schools (16 percent). The percentages of students who were Asian or of Two or more races were larger at nonsectarian schools (9 and 6 percent, respectively) than at schools with a religious orientation. Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native students each made up 1 percent or less of the enrollment across all five categories of private schools.


Figure 3.2. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school level: Fall 2015

Figure 3.2. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school level: Fall 2015

1 Affiliated religious schools belong to associations of schools with a specific religious orientation other than Catholic or conservative Christian. Unaffiliated religious schools have a religious orientation or purpose but are not classified as Catholic, conservative Christian, or affiliated.
NOTE: Includes enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12; excludes enrollment in schools that only offer prekindergarten. Elementary schools have grade 6 or lower and no grade higher than 8. Secondary schools have no grade lower than 7. Combined schools include those that have grades lower than 7 and higher than 8, as well as those that do not classify students by grade level. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 205.30.


In fall 2015, half of all private elementary and secondary students (50 percent) were at elementary schools, 13 percent were at secondary schools, and 36 percent were at combined elementary and secondary schools. The share of students at elementary schools was highest at Catholic schools (67 percent) and lowest at conservative Christian schools (21 percent). A quarter of Catholic school students (25 percent) attended secondary schools, while 9 percent each of affiliated religious and nonsectarian school students, 6 percent of unaffiliated religious school students, and 2 percent of conservative Christian school students did so. In comparison, the share of students at combined schools was lowest at Catholic schools (8 percent) and highest at conservative Christian schools (77 percent).


Figure 3.3. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school enrollment: Fall 2015

Figure 3.3. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school enrollment: Fall 2015

# Rounds to zero.
1 Affiliated religious schools belong to associations of schools with a specific religious orientation other than Catholic or conservative Christian. Unaffiliated religious schools have a religious orientation or purpose but are not classified as Catholic, conservative Christian, or affiliated.
NOTE: Includes enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12; excludes enrollment in schools that only offer prekindergarten. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 205.30.


On average, private schools were smaller than public schools. In fall 2015, the average private school had 166 students and the average public school had 526 students.3 In fall 2015, some 5 percent of all private elementary and secondary students were enrolled in schools with less than 50 students, 17 percent were enrolled in schools with 50 to 149 students, 25 percent were enrolled in schools with 150 to 299 students, 20 percent were enrolled in schools with 300 to 499 students, 16 percent were enrolled in schools with 500 to 749 students, and 17 percent were enrolled in schools with 750 or more students. The share of students enrolled in schools with less than 50 students was lowest for Catholic school students (one-half of 1 percent) and highest for unaffiliated religious school students (14 percent). In contrast, the share of students enrolled in schools with 300 to 499 students was highest for Catholic school students (28 percent) and lowest for unaffiliated religious school students (11 percent). Twenty-two percent of affiliated religious school students and 19 percent of nonsectarian school students were enrolled in schools with 750 or more students, compared with 16 percent each of Catholic and unaffiliated religious school students and 14 percent of conservative Christian school students.


Figure 3.4. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school locale: Fall 2015

Figure 3.4. Percentage distribution of private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each school religious orientation, by school locale: Fall 2015

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
1 Affiliated religious schools belong to associations of schools with a specific religious orientation other than Catholic or conservative Christian. Unaffiliated religious schools have a religious orientation or purpose but are not classified as Catholic, conservative Christian, or affiliated.
NOTE: Includes enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12; excludes enrollment in schools that only offer prekindergarten. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 205.30.


In fall 2015, some 43 percent of all private elementary and secondary students were enrolled in schools in cities, 40 percent were enrolled in schools in suburban areas, 6 percent were enrolled in schools in towns, and 11 percent were enrolled in schools in rural areas. The percentage of students enrolled in schools in cities was lower for public elementary and secondary students (30 percent) than for private elementary and secondary students, while the percentages of public elementary and secondary students enrolled in schools in towns (11 percent) and in rural areas (19 percent) were higher than the percentages for private elementary and secondary students.4 In 2015, the distribution of private elementary and secondary students by school locale varied by school religious orientation. The share of students enrolled in schools in cities was lower at conservative Christian schools (29 percent) than at schools of any other religious orientation; this percentage was also lower at affiliated religious schools (43 percent) and nonsectarian schools (44 percent) than at Catholic schools (47 percent). The share of students enrolled in schools in suburban areas was lower at unaffiliated religious schools (30 percent) than at schools of any other religious orientation, and the share of students enrolled in schools in towns was lowest at nonsectarian schools (3 percent). The share of students enrolled in schools in rural areas was lowest at Catholic schools (5 percent); this percentage was also lower at nonsectarian schools (11 percent) than at conservative Christian schools (15 percent) and unaffiliated religious schools (19 percent).


Table 3.1. Number and percentage of private school students enrolled in prekindergarten through grade 12, for each affiliation of school enrolling 50,000 or more students: Fall 2015

Religious affiliation of school Number of
students
Percent of
all private school
students¹
Roman Catholic 2,082,700   36  
Christian (no specific denomination) 876,400   15  
Jewish 334,400   6  
Baptist 239,200   4  
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod 158,300   3  
Episcopal 103,700   2  
Amish 68,800 ! 1 !
Presbyterian 56,100   1  
Seventh-Day Adventist 53,300   1  
! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
1 Detail does not sum to 100 percent because not all categories are reported.
NOTE: Includes enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12; excludes enrollment in schools that only offer prekindergarten.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Private School Universe Survey (PSS), 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 205.45.

An analysis of schools with specific religious affiliations provides more detailed information about private school enrollment. In 2015, schools with nine religious affiliations accounted for 69 percent of the total private elementary and secondary school enrollment, and each of these types of schools enrolled 50,000 or more students: Roman Catholic (2,082,700 students), Christian, no specific denomination (876,400 students), Jewish (334,400 students), Baptist (239,200 students), Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (158,300 students), Episcopal (103,700 students), Amish (68,800 students), Presbyterian (56,100 students), and Seventh-Day Adventist (53,300 students). Between 1999 and 2015, most affiliations experienced changes in student enrollment of more than 10 percent. For instance, enrollment in Roman Catholic schools was 22 percent lower in 2015 than in 1999 (2,660,400 students), while enrollment in Christian schools with no specific denomination was 44 percent higher in 2015 than in 1999 (609,200 students) and enrollment in Jewish schools was 68 percent higher in 2015 than in 1999 (198,600 students).5


1 Detail does not sum to 100 percent because of rounding.
2 Data presented in this indicator on traditional public and public charter schools come from the fall 2015 data collection to provide a comparison with fall 2015 data on private schools. More recent data on traditional public and public charter schools are presented in Indicator 2.
3 See tables 3.5 and 3.3, respectively, for the average enrollment sizes of private and public schools.
4 See table 3.3 for the percentage distribution of public school enrollment by locale.
5 See table 3.5 for the fall 1999 student enrollment for each religious affiliation.


Reference Tables

  • Table 205.45 (Digest of Education Statistics 2018) Number and percentage distribution of private elementary and secondary students, number of teachers and pupil/teacher ratio, and number and average enrollment size of schools, by religious affiliation of school: Fall 1999, fall 2009, and fall 2015
  • Table 205.20 (Digest of Education Statistics 2017) Enrollment and percentage distribution of students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, by school orientation and grade level: Selected years, fall 1995 through fall 2015
  • Table 205.30 (Digest of Education Statistics 2017) Percentage distribution of students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, by school orientation and selected characteristics: Selected years, fall 2005 through fall 2015
  • Table 214.40 (Digest of Education Statistics 2017) Public elementary and secondary school enrollment, number of schools, and other selected characteristics, by locale: Fall 2012 through fall 2015
  • Table 216.30 (Digest of Education Statistics 2017) Number and percentage distribution of public elementary and secondary students and schools, by traditional or charter school status and selected characteristics: Selected years, 200001 through 201516

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