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Enrollment in Catholic Higher Education: Global and Regional Trends


A scholar examines enrollment trends among Catholic institutions around the world and explores three major challenges in those countries where much of the future growth is likely to occur

By Quentin Wodon


In the United States, there may be a perception that Catholic higher education is facing a crisis. While top-ranked universities are doing well, many lesser known institutions in the United States, Catholic and otherwise, have failed to meet their admission targets in recent years. This has forced some of them to reduce costs, including through voluntary departures or layoffs of faculty and staff.

While enrollment in Catholic higher education in the United States has decreased recently, the trend in most other countries is different, despite an increasingly competitive higher education market.[1] Enrollment in Catholic schools continues to rise not only from kindergarten to secondary education but also at the tertiary level, according to data from the annual statistical yearbooks of the Church. As shown below, enrollment in Catholic higher education increased at a rate of more than 3 percent per year over the last four decades.


Trends in Enrollment in Catholic Higher Education

Data on the number of students in Catholic institutions of higher education are provided annually in the Catholic Church’s statistical yearbooks, the latest of which is for the year 2016. The yearbooks provide data on enrollment according to three categories: (1) students enrolled in Catholic Higher Institutes, which are all postsecondary institutions not classified as universities; (2) students enrolled in ecclesiastical studies in Catholic universities; and (3) students enrolled in other types of studies in Catholic universities.[2]

Data from the statistical yearbooks provide estimates of enrollment in Catholic institutions of higher education for these three categories of students and for the total number of students enrolled. The data are provided at five-year intervals from 1975 to 2016 globally and for five regions: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. In 2016, 6.0 million students were enrolled in Catholic higher education. Of those, 2.5 million were in higher institutes, 0.5 million were enrolled in ecclesiastical studies in universities, and 3.0 million were studying other topics at Catholic universities. Figure 1 visualizes the trends in enrollment by region. Wodon-Fig1

A few findings are worth emphasizing. First, the trend in Figure 1 suggests substantial growth in enrollment over time. The combined enrollment in Catholic higher education more than tripled globally between 1975 and 2016, from 1.6 million students to 6.0 million. Similar trends took place for K-12 education. But while for K-12 education most of the growth was in Africa, for tertiary education most of the growth in absolute terms took place in the Americas (gain of 2.8 million students), Asia (gain of 1.5 million students), and Europe (gain of 0.8 million students). In terms of annual growth rates, Africa is doing well, but it is starting from a low base, so that absolute gains remain smaller. In terms of the three categories of students, the largest gains were observed in absolute terms for university students not engaged in ecclesiastical studies (gain of 2.2 million students) and students in higher institutes (gain of 1.7 million students), but large gains were also observed for students in ecclesiastical studies (gain of 0.4 million students). While there may be a crisis in vocations in parts of the world, the number of students in ecclesiastical studies is nevertheless rising everywhere.

Second, as shown in Figure 2, there are differences between regions in the share of students enrolled by type of higher education. Globally, students in universities (all types of studies included) account for 58.4 percent of total enrollment, versus 41.6 percent for students in higher institutes. Asia, where India plays a major role (given few or no Catholic institutions in China), is the only one of the five regions of the world where most students are enrolled in higher institutes. Among university students, globally there are about six students in non-ecclesiastical studies for every one student in ecclesiastical studies. But these proportions change again substantially by region. In Asia, the proportions are reversed, with 66.2 percent of students in higher institutes, versus only 33.8 percent in universities, again all types of studies included. This is related in part to the broader explosion of private non-university institutions of higher education in India as a response to the demand from the rising middle class for higher education. Wodon-Fig2

Globally, the shares of students enrolled in higher institutes and universities did not fundamentally change over the last four decades, despite ups and downs by five-year intervals. But among universities, there has been a steady rise of the share of students enrolled in ecclesiastical studies. In 1975, these students represented less than 3 percent of total enrollment in Catholic higher education globally. By 2016, this had risen to 7.9 percent, due to gains in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. By contrast, in Europe and Oceania, there was a small decline in the share of students in ecclesiastical studies over the last decade, albeit from higher baseline levels.

Third, in proportionate terms, as a percentage change from the base, the highest growth rates in overall enrollment are observed in Africa, even though in absolute terms larger gains are reported in other regions. The annual growth rates from 1975 to 2016 (taking into account compounding) are visualized in Figure 3. In Africa, total enrollment grew over the last four decades at a rate of almost 10 percent per year. In Oceania as well, the rate of growth was high, at 7.2 percent over the full period, but the potential for enrollment growth in the future in that region is much smaller. In the future, if the growth in enrollment in Africa continues to be higher than in the rest of the world, the region will account for a progressively larger share in total enrollment, even if this will take some time. For students in ecclesiastical studies, the highest growth rates over the four decades are observed in Africa and in Asia. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there was a small loss in total enrollment between 2010 and 2016 mostly due to losses in the Americas, and in particular in Mexico and the United States, where there was a decline in enrollment for university students in non-ecclesiastical studies.


Fourth, as is the case in K-12 education, there are substantial differences between countries in the size of their Catholic higher education networks. The Table provides data on the top 15 countries in terms of total enrollment in 2016. Together, these countries account for four-fifths of global enrollment. By comparison, the top 15 countries account for two-thirds of global enrollment in K-12 Catholic schools. As expected, given the correlation between enrollment in higher education and economic development, there is a higher concentration of enrollment in a few countries for higher education than for K-12 education. The country with the largest enrollment is the United States, with more than 900,000 students. Three large developing counties follow: India, the Philippines, and Brazil. Italy is next, due in part to the role of the Vatican and high concentration of students in ecclesiastical and other studies in Rome. The smallest country in the mix by population size is Belgium, where by law Catholic higher education institutions benefit from generous public funding, as do other institutions, whether faith-based or not. None of the countries in the top 15 are classified as low-income by the World Bank (low-income countries have a level of Gross National Income per capita of $995 or less in 2017). By contrast, for K-12 education, three of the top five countries were low-income (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Uganda).



Looking Ahead

To conclude, it may be useful to provide a few parting thoughts about challenges facing higher education, especially in developing countries where much of the future growth in enrollment in Catholic institutions is likely to take place. It is worth noting three major challenges identified in a recent evaluation of the work of the World Bank in higher education: a lack of equity, a lack of quality, and a lack of employability.[3]

Lack of equity in access to higher education is prominent throughout the developing world but has special relevance for the Church given its preferential option for the poor. Even in basic education, reaching the poor is a challenge for many Catholic schools, in part due to the need to recover operating costs from parents in the absence of state support, or when support is limited. When considering higher education, the situation is even worse as an overwhelming majority of students in tertiary education come from the well-to-do. Realistically, given limited resources for scholarships or other initiatives to increase affordability, Catholic institutions of higher education will probably continue to have a limited ability to reach the poor in the foreseeable future. But there are other ways in which they could contribute. Catholic institutions of higher education, for example, have long been a pioneer in the training of nurses and other health personnel in low-income countries. Similarly, even if they primarily serve students who are relatively well off, Catholic institutions can impart to those students the values developed under Catholic social teaching.

The poor quality of higher education is also a major issue, especially in low-income countries where students often take more years to complete their degree than should be necessary. Part of the problem stems from a lack of resources — for both students and the institutions. Many students who complete their secondary education are not well-prepared for higher education, but substandard instruction is also at fault, as many professors lack sufficient pedagogical training. There is only so much that Catholic higher education institutions can do to solve these complex issues, but they can make a difference by improving pre-service teacher training, and more generally they can ensure that they are well-managed with sufficient accountability toward students.

Finally, lack of employability should not be taken lightly. Especially in low-income countries, unemployment and underemployment are widespread among college graduates, and often higher than for less educated individuals. This is due in part to higher reservation wages (i.e., higher wages required by individuals to work) among college graduates, but it also reflects the fact that too often what is learned by students in college is not what is needed for the job market.[4] Given limited employment in the formal sector in low-income settings, higher education institutions should place a greater emphasis on skills related to entrepreneurship, yet this is rarely done. They should also have a stronger dialogue with potential employers to understand how to design their programs so that they lead to higher employability. Finally, the institutions need to develop more cutting-edge research in selected fields, especially those where employment with decent wages is expected to increase over time.

These are admittedly fairly general suggestions, but this emphasis on employability and research excellence in secular topics is sometimes contrasted with the aim among Catholic institutions to educate the full person, including the nurturing of each student’s faith. These various missions need not, however, be in conflict: They can be complementary, not only in the developing world, but also in countries such as the United States. What seems clear is that in a higher education market that is expected to become increasingly competitive over time, without enough focus on employability and research excellence, Catholic institutions may not fare as well as they should.


Quentin Wodon is lead economist with the World Bank and distinguished research affiliate with the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame. The analysis and views expressed in this article are those of the author only. This article is excerpted from the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, vol. 39,  no. 1.

All figures compiled by author from annual Statistical Yearbook of the Church.


[1] See Philip G. Altbach et al., Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution. Global Perspectives on Higher Education (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2009); see also Jamil Salmi, The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2009).

[2] It is worth noting that enrollment estimates could be on the low side. A complete explanation is provided in the full, unedited version of this article. See Journal of Catholic Higher Education, vol. 39.1 (2020), Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

[3] Independent Evaluation Group, Higher Education for Development: An Evaluation of the World Bank Group’s Support (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2017).

[4] Deon Filmer and Louise Fox, Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2014).