Parents have for decades had trouble stretching their budgets so they can provide their children with a Catholic education.

On average, annual tuition at Catholic elementary schools in Oregon is more than $5,400. High school tuition is more than twice that. That’s a bargain when you realize it’s $3,000 less than what it actually costs to educate one elementary student. And national surveys show that students in Catholic schools routinely score higher across the board in math, reading and most subjects than students in public schools. The values taught and spiritual benefits are immeasurable. But the financial barriers are just too much to overcome for some families.

Long gone are the days when Holy Names Sisters and the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon outnumbered lay teachers. The ratio has flipped dramatically. During the last school year, full-time professional staff who were religious made up only 2.6% of schools staff nationally, according to the National Catholic Education Association.

“My best explanation to people is that when our generation was in the elementary schools and the high schools, we enjoyed a living endowment,” says Peter Corrado, executive director of the Catholic Schools Endowment Foundation. “The overhead was considerably lower because the archdiocese was providing educators through the religious in residences locally, significantly reducing the cost of salaries necessary today.”

Operating costs have risen because lay teachers, who are professional educators, are encumbered with their own student loans and are now required to have a master’s degree in education. Salaries have had to keep pace to hire and keep quality teachers.

The CSEF was created in 2017 to help bridge Catholic education’s financial gap. Working with an endowment that currently sits at $10 million, the foundation has been able to provide financial support for families in about half of western Oregon’s 39 Catholic elementary schools.

Using FACTS, an objective third-party needs assessment process, and in collaboration with principals, the foundation identifies families with the greatest remaining need after schools have dispensed with their own resources. Families are notified of the awards and CSEF delivers funds to schools in the fall to reduce tuition for individual families. Typically that’s between $1,250 and $2,500 per family.

The foundation issued its first grants in 2020 totaling approximately $350,000. The following year it increased to $440,000 and this past year $565,000 in support was given. Corrado says the total assessed need for the archdiocese currently is about $4.9 million. “We met about 12% of that this year. So we’re just barely scratching the surface.”

There are other sources of financial aid such as the Joseph E. Weston matching grant program. Individual schools provide financial assistance and some manage their own endowments. But Corrado says to address the needs of families in western Oregon struggling to meet tuition obligations, the CSEF’s endowment must grow to around $50 million.

For Catholic education to achieve a sustainable financial foundation, Corrado says tuitions must rise, incrementally, to cover the actual cost of running schools. When that happens, more families will need help to keep their kids in school.

To grow the endowment, parishes with greater resources need to step up to help parishes with greater needs. Some schools, according to Corrado, already set tuition to levels commensurate with the cost of education. And it’s in those more affluent communities that Corrado sees opportunities. It’s important “to be really hyper-focused on the families in parish schools that don’t have the same resources that some of the others do... And once I have the chance to talk with donors and explain it to them, they jump on board.”

Thus far, the endowment has been supported by the archdiocese and donors contacted directly. But, Corrado says, “the foundation is ever-aware of the need for a concerted campaign” that would help fill the gap in those family budgets so that more children can benefit from a Catholic education.