Dozens of Saint Joseph's students await the arrival of Pope Francis last fall.

The pipeline started at baptism and ended at college graduation. Catholic kids in Philly went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and, if they weren’t a star athlete or headed to the Ivy League caliber student, probably Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Villanova or maybe one of the smaller Catholic colleges in the area, like Holy Family.

Entire neighborhoods developed that way through the ’60s and ’70s and then begat another generation who grew up similarly and kept the pipeline filled for the ’80s and ’90s. And now, with Generation Xers having families and millennials nearing the ages of settling down? Now it’s a fantasy.

The Philadelphia area’s Catholic parishes and schools have felt the sting for years, with more than 50 of each closing or merging since the ’90s. The universities might be next. The trends afflicting grade schools and high schools could lead to an uncertain, foreboding future if they don’t adapt. The present is already getting a little murky. As one professor at La Salle put it last month, regarding layoffs, buyouts and changes happening at the university, “Something’s going on.”

The surprising thing about Catholicism in the Philadelphia area is that in terms of sheer population, the religion has never been more popular. According to statistics from the archdiocese, there are nearly 1,490,000 Catholics — an almost-record high for its five-county reach (Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks). That’s more than there were 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 30 years ago and even 15 years ago. The share of Catholics in the overall population also remains high, at about 37 percent, somewhat lower than it was in 1999 (43 percent) but about the same as 1980 (38 percent).

Yet parishes and schools are closing. The archdiocese’s parish count for 2014 was 219, down from 302 in 1990 and 286 in 2000 and even 257 in 2012. One reason is the continued decline of urban Catholics, who’ve been moving steadily from Philadelphia to the ‘burbs. The number of Catholics in Philadelphia proper has dropped 37 percent since 1980, to about 375,000. The merged and closed churches have primarily been in the city.

Unlike many areas of the city, the suburbs are home to decent, free public schools. And in Philly, new charter schools have provided a free alternative to Catholic schools. From 2000 to 2010, according to Pew, charter schools saw an increase of 170 percent while K-12 Catholic schools saw a decline of 37 percent (public school enrollment declined 19 percent and the rate of decline in other urban dioceses in a similar timeframe was 30 percent).

In the past, Catholics may have paid the tuition, but they aren’t as dedicated as they once were. About 27 percent nationwide describe themselves as having a strong religious identity. That share is a historic low, down 15 percentage points from the mid-’80s and well behind Protestants. Compared to Catholics, about twice as many of them have strong religious identities.

In Philly, Catholicism was particularly tested by the child sexual abuse scandal of the early 2000s that led to the conviction of, among others, prominent Catholic official Monsignor William Lynn.

“For my mom’s generation it was just, ‘Father Murphy said so and this is why we do it,’” said Robin Nolan, the VP of advancement at St. Hubert’s High School for Girls in Northeast Philadelphia…. “There’s a generation now we’re just not blindly following Catholic faith anymore.”  

The 10 Catholic colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area had been largely immune from the decades of decline affecting the parishes and schools. From 1980 to 2010, they had nearly uninterrupted growth, their combined enrollments increasing 51 percent, from 31,226 to 47,202.

But enrollment has declined every year since then. In the fall of 2014, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, their enrollment was 43,350.

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The decline comes at a time when more people are going to college than ever, and many public and private Pennsylvania and Philadelphia universities are experiencing enrollment increases or staying about even (Lincoln University is an exception). Even Philadelphia University, a small private school merging with Thomas Jefferson, saw its enrollment grow in this time period.

Could it be a sign of Philly’s Catholic school problem making its way to the highest levels of education?

If you don’t go to Catholic grade school, you’re probably not going to Catholic high school or Catholic college,” says Joe DeFelice, the chairman of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee and an alum of area Catholic schools and La Salle. “It’s kind of like a pipeline.”

The numbers bear it out. According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 79 percent of current Catholic college students attended Catholic grade school, and 65 percent attended Catholic high school.

Sticker prices for Philly’s Catholic colleges exceed $40,000 and even $50,000 for tuition, fees and room and board. Saint Joe’s and La Salle are ranked as regional universities while Pitt, Temple and Penn State climb in the national U.S. News and World Report rankings, and they cost about twice as much for Pennsylvanians. The price to attend La Salle has doubled in the last 20 years.

When Anne Ayella attended Saint Joe’s in the ’70s, she recalls paying under $2,000 a year. Though financial aid and scholarships put the cost for Catholic universities closer to $30,000, the price was still too much for her to consider them for her children — and she works for the archdiocese.

“We were going the route of Temple, Penn State, West Chester,” she says, “stuff like that.”

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Laura Perna, a Penn professor and founding Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, says all universities must come to grips with their pricing and revenue models, but private and Catholic universities might have to examine theirs sooner.

“Are we really ensuring that the benefits of higher education,” she asks, “are worth the cost?”   

The small Catholic colleges, like Cabrini and Immaculata, have been hit the hardest. Villanova, with a national reach unlike the other nine universities (it draws about three-fourths of its student population from outside of the state) has continued to increase the size of its student body the last five years.

St. Joe’s grew substantially in the 2000s, increasing its student body from about 7,000 to nearly 9,000. Its fall 2015 enrollment of 8,592, a number provided by the university that includes undergrads and grad students, is still far above what it once was, but about 300-400 students lower than it consistently had been the last five years. In 2013 and 2014, St. Joe’s faced consecutive years of  $8 million shortfalls, leading the faculty senate to clean house at senior administration levels.  

La Salle’s enrollment has declined every year since 2011. Its fall 2015 enrollment of 5,675 is largely due to an unexpectedly small freshman class. The university responded by laying off 23 employees in August. In February, it offered buyouts to older faculty members. La Salle is also in the middle of a “Prioritization Program” that will likely lead to the elimination or consolidation of some departments.   

The enrollment game isn’t an easy one. Selective universities can draw students with higher GPAs and SAT scores and perhaps increase their ranking. But enrollment has to stay robust, especially when universities like St. Joe’s and La Salle have hired faculty and built facilities to accommodate a certain size of student body. Both universities draw more than 80 percent of their revenue from student tuition and fees.

“[Universities] value having small numbers of students per faculty member and meeting face to face,” Perna says. “And that model hasn’t changed much over time. But it’s an expensive model.”

La Salle and St. Joe’s have made significant leadership changes since 2014, notably by hiring their first lay presidents. Neither president was made available for comment, but La Salle spokesperson Jaine Lucas offered a statement about some of its strategies for increasing enrollment. They include the hiring of a new VP for Enrollment, more open house campus events and improved digital marketing and social media efforts. La Salle is also adding varsity men’s and women’s water polo and women’s golf.

These sports are very popular at the high school level but few colleges and universities offer them,” the statement read. “This move will allow us to broaden our reach not only in the Mid-Atlantic but across the country. As the Catholic high school population continues to decline in Philadelphia, we are targeting and must continue to target new populations of students in our own backyard and around the world who seek an institution of higher education that develops them intellectually but also personally and spiritually.”

Ayella thinks Pope Francis’ 2015 visit could provide a lasting boon for Catholicism in the region. His itinerary included last September included a surprise stop at St. Joe’s.  

“He’s kind of proactive at getting us to think about looking beyond ourselves,” Ayella says. “I think that’s what Catholics should be doing.”

The same could be said for Philadelphia’s Catholic universities.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...