What’s Happening With Camp Enrollment?

by M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.

Whenever camp professionals get together, at some point the conversation focuses on issues around enrollment. Some folks boast of waiting lists and high numbers of returning campers. Other directors talk worriedly about decreases in enrollment and less interested children going to camp. This fall we collected information about enrollment from the 2005 summer season to get some answers to these concerns.

Thanks to the camps that took time to complete the survey and to the encouragement given them by executive directors in the local American Camp Association (ACA) offices, we had 528 camps complete the Web-based survey (a 23 percent response rate). The camps that answered the survey were representative of the ACA camp community and provided an accurate view of enrollment . To have comparable information, we asked directors to indicate their total enrollment in camper weeks rather than total campers as a way to equalize different session lengths. For example, if one hundred campers attended for one week, that was equal to one hundred camper weeks. However if one hundred campers attended camp for eight weeks, that was eight hundred camper weeks. While the survey also asked questions about staff recruitment, this article discusses only the camper enrollment data.

Overview of Summer 2005 Enrollment

The overall view on enrollment from directors was that the 2005 summer season was a good summer for the majority of camps. Forty-two percent of the camps indicated that this summer was the highest or higher than most of the past five summers for enrollment, while another 23 percent of the directors thought enrollment was about the same.

However, some directors provided a different view on enrollment when they indicated last summer was lower than most of the past five summers (22 percent), and some camps reported their worst enrollment (13 percent) for that five-year period. When compared to their potential capacity, almost half of the camps (45 percent) operated at 90 percent-100 percent capacity. About a quarter of the camps operated at 80 percent-89 percent capacity, and another quarter operated at less than 80 percent capacity. Over 60 percent of the camps were within 90 percent-100 percent of their targeted enrollment for the 2005 summer.

The number of summer camper weeks generated in 2005 helps assess the impact of camp opportunities for children. Table 1 on shows the distribution of camper weeks generated by the camps in the survey. Seventy percent said 2005 camper weeks were equal to or higher than last year. When asked how much higher this year was for camper weeks, 58 percent said between 1 percent-7 percent higher (see Map 1). If they indicated they were lower on camper weeks compared to last year, 56 percent were lower by 1 percent-7 percent (see Map 2). When asked about enrollment in specialized programs (horseback riding, etc.) camps indicated that the interest was about the same as last year (38 percent) or higher (18 percent). It was interesting to note that 27 percent of the camps responded they offered no specialized programs.

Camp directors were interested in enrollment based on gender (see Table 2). When asked about enrollment of boys in their programs, 42 percent said they had increased while 22 percent had decreased. Sixty-five percent of camps with increased numbers of boys said it was higher by 1 percent-7 percent while more than half of the camps (58 percent) who were lower were down by 1 percent-7 percent. However, 27 percent of the camps who were lower on boys' enrollment were down more than 10 percent compared to last year. A similar picture emerged for girls' enrollment. Thirty-seven percent of the camps had higher enrollment of girls in 2005 while 29 percent were lower than 2004. For both higher and lower enrollments of girls, 39 percent said the difference was in the 1 percent-3 percent range. Similar to the boys' data, 26 percent of the camps who were down on girls' enrollment were lower by more than 10 percent.

Enrollment numbers based on age of campers was also a concern this summer. Table 3 shows enrollment by three age groups: ≤ nine-year-olds, ten to twelve-year-olds, and teens. The majority of camps for 2005 summer indicated the same or higher enrollment compared to last year in each age group. When we looked to see how much higher and lower enrollments were, we found mirror images of change. For example, for ten to twelve-year-olds, we found 36 percent of the camps were higher by 1 percent-3 percent and 36 percent were lower by 1 percent-3 percent. For nine years and under, we found 21 percent were up by 10 percent or more while 16 percent were down by 10 percent or more. This finding may suggest a shifting of campers from one camp to another camp.

This year, we also collected data on how camps financially supported campers through scholarships, donations, etc. Most camps (85 percent) indicated their organization offered financial support of at least 50 percent of the camp costs to campers in need. Forty-two percent of the camps generated between 1-49 camper weeks through this type of support while 23 percent said they generated 50-199 supported camper weeks. When compared to last year, 90 percent of the camps said they were the same or higher in their financial support of campers with modest 1 percent-7 percent increases.

Lastly, return rates of campers were examined. More than half the directors said they had return rates between 50 percent- 74 percent. When compared to last year, 62 percent of the directors said they had about the same number of returning campers. For camps with higher rates of returning campers, almost 60 percent said they had increased by 1 percent-7 percent while the same percent (60 percent) of those camps that had lower returning campers had decreases of 1 percent-7 percent.

Does Enrollment Differ Based On Camp Characteristics?

Folks in the field thought we might see a difference in enrollment information when day and resident camps were compared. However, that comparison showed few meaningful differences. The four major differences that were found for the summer of 2005 addressed the amount of financial support received, session length, camper return rates, and perceived enrollment trends for the past five years. Day camps had slightly less financial support for campers ($2,500-$4,999) compared to resident camps' support ($5,000-$9,999). The average day camp had a slightly longer session length than did the average resident camp, but overall the most popular session length for both was one week. Finally when 2005 summer was compared to the previous five years, day camps indicated that this summer was higher in enrollment than most of the last five years while resident camps thought it was about the same or perhaps slightly higher than the past summers.

A regional analysis uncovered a few more differences specific to a camp's location. The following seven enrollment differences addressed: session length; percent of returning campers; the amount of financial support given by the camp; the degree of decrease in overall camper enrollment; and the degree of decrease in lower enrollments for boys, girls, teens, and returning campers. The following regional comparisons spotlight the challenges that face camps in the West and to a lesser extent camps in the South.

  • Session lengths differed regionally; although the majority of camps said their most popular sessions were one week long. One-week sessions were most popular in the South, West, and Mid-America regions while New England and Mid-Atlantic regions had more camps favoring three-week or longer sessions.
  • Mid-Atlantic regions had the highest number of returning campers while the West and South had lower rates of returnees. Camps in the South experienced the greatest decrease (greater than 10 percent) in return campers.
  • When compared to last year, the enrollment of financially supported campers was highest for the South and lowest in the West.
  • Compared to last summer, higher drops (8 percent+) were seen in overall camper enrollments in the West region.
  • Higher drops (8 percent+) in enrollment of boys were seen in the West and South while Mid-America and Mid-Atlantic regions did not have such extensive decreases.
  • Decreases of 8 percent+ in enrollments for girls were seen in the West and New England.
  • Camps in the West experienced the greatest decreases in teen enrollments.

The last analysis looked at the information from the perspective of camp affiliation (agency, religious, independent for profit, and independent nonprofit). This comparison showed a number of interesting differences.

  • Religiously affiliated camps experienced the most consistent pattern of decreases in enrollment of boys, girls, ten- to twelve-year-old campers, and teen campers.
  • Agency camps stayed the same or increased slightly in boys' enrollment and ten- to twelve-year-olds while independent for profit camps maintained or increased slightly in girls' and teen enrollments.
  • Independent for-profit camps had the highest rate of returning campers (75 percent-100 percent) while independent nonprofit camps had the lowest (50 percent-74 percent).
  • Independent for-profit camps indicated that their overall camper enrollment was between 90 percent-99 percent capacity while religiously-affiliated camps had the lowest average capacity at 80 percen-89 percent.
  • When asked how close they were to their targeted enrollment for the 2005 summer, independent for-profit camps had the best performance at the upper end of the 90 percent-99 percent. Religiously-affiliated had the lowest but still fell within their target of 90 percent-99 percent.
  • The most popular session length varied by affiliation where religious-affiliated favored the shorter sessions (one to two weeks) while independent for-profit camps like longer sessions (four+ weeks).

So What Can We Learn From the Enrollment Survey?

The issue of camp enrollment is more complex than may initially appear. While the summer of 2005 was one of high enrollment that met many camps' targeted enrollment projections and was close to capacity, for other segments of the camp community, the summer was one of the lowest enrollment summers of the past five years. A closer look at the data lead to several conclusions from this study:

  • It appears that the amount of loss of camper weeks in some camps was offset by comparable increases in other camps. While difficult to prove, one possibility is that campers may be leaving one camp only to enroll in another camp.
  • Regional differences based on the camps' location indicate that camps in the West and to a lesser degree in the South are facing enrollment challenges not experienced in other parts of the country. With the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the camps in the South, this challenge may increase enrollment concerns for this region this year.
  • The concern over enrollment differences for day and resident camps were not evident in these data.
  • Enrollment decreases are a concern for religiously-affiliated camps. When camps who indicated they were experiencing decreases in enrollment (particularly by age and gender) were examined more closely, religiously-affiliated camps were often the ones with the largest decreases.
  • When enrollments were maintained at previous levels or increased, these gains were spread throughout the camp community.

The picture of enrollment that has emerged from this survey is possible because these ACA camps took the time to complete the study. We plan to continue to collect enrollment projection data every January and April in support of the actual enrollment information gathered every fall. We hope that even more camps will choose to participate in these brief surveys. With the help of camp administrators, we will generate a base from which to develop trends related to enrollment. Our goal is to provide camp decision-makers with accurate information so they can develop marketing and recruitment strategies and retention plans based on the most informed research data from the camp community.

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is a senior researcher for the American Camp Association and an emeritus professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact the author at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org.

Originally published in the 2006 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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