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Summer Camp Enrollment Trends: A Time for Optimism?
While every summer millions of children attend camp, as many or more never get this experience. The American Camp Association (ACA) believes so strongly in the positive benefits of the camp experience that one of the Ends of the Association is to increase the number of children, youth, and adults of all social, cultural, and economic groups who can attend camp. Our commitment to this end rests in our ability to track and provide a dynamic snapshot of how we are doing — this article provides that overview for summer of 2007 as well as comparisons to the two previous summers.
In the fall of 2007, 622 camps completed ACA's Web-based enrollment survey (23 percent response rate), which was the same rate as the previous year. The camps who answered the survey were closely representative of the ACA camp community in terms of type, affiliation, and region, and so provided a reasonably comparable view for this discussion about enrollment (see sidebar on page 50). The questions were almost identical to the previous two enrollment surveys (2005 and 2006); therefore, we can make comparisons across years.
A Snapshot of Camper Enrollment for Summer 2007
The overall word from the directors on enrollment was that the 2007 summer season was a good summer for the majority of camps with evidence of steady improvement since the summer of 2005 (see Table 1). Over 34 percent of the camps said that this summer was the highest of the last five years, and another 21 percent indicated that this summer was higher than most of the past five summers. Another 24 percent of the directors thought enrollment was about the same. However, some directors (14 percent) provided a different view on enrollment when they indicated they had fewer campers this summer than most of the past five summers. However, only 7 percent said the 2007 summer was their worst enrollment for the last five-year period.
Almost half of the camps (49 percent) operated at 90-100 percent of their potential capacity with another 28 percent at 80-89 percent capacity. When asked about their targeted enrollments, over 71 percent of the camps were within 90-100 percent of their targeted enrollment for the 2007 summer. When compared to 2005 targeted capacity figures, we see more than a 10 percent increase in the number of camps hitting between 90-100 percent of their targeted enrollments.
The number of camper weeks generated is one way to assess the impact of camp opportunities for children. Directors indicated 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. Table 2 shows the distribution of camper weeks generated by the camps in the survey. Over 78 percent said camper weeks in 2007 were equal to or higher than last year (see Map 1). When asked how much higher this year was for camper weeks, 55 percent said between 1-7 percent higher. If they indicated they were lower on camper weeks compared to last year, 63 percent were lower by 1-7 percent. When asked about enrollment in specialized programs (horseback riding, etc.), camps indicated that the interest was about the same as last year (56 percent) or higher (32 percent). This increased interest in specialized activities was almost 15 percent higher than first reported in 2005. While interest in specialized programs seemed on the rise, 29 percent of the camps said they offered no specialized programs.
The survey this year found continued growth in the enrollment of both girls and boys at camp. Forty-four percent of the directors said their enrollment of boys had increased from last year and only 16 percent said it had decreased (see Table 3). Almost 60 percent of the camps with increased numbers of boys said they were higher by 1-7 percent. Even if boys' enrollment dropped, 42 percent of these decreases were small (1-3 percent decreases). A similar picture emerged for girls' enrollment with almost a 10 percent increase since last year (see Table 3). Forty-six percent of the directors indicated a higher enrollment of girls in 2007 while only 18 percent were lower than the previous year. For both higher and lower enrollments of girls, approximately 30 percent said the difference was in the 1-3 percent range. Only 17 percent of the camps with decreased girls' enrollment were lower by more than 10 percent.
Some camp professionals have expressed concerns about getting the youngest children to camp as well as keeping them into their teens. Table 4 shows enrollment by three age groups: less than or equal to nine years old, ten to twelve years old, and teens. The majority of camps for 2007 felt their agegroup enrollments were the same or higher than the previous two years. Similar to last year's information, we generally found larger percentages of positive changes in enrollment and lower percentages for decreased enrollments. For example, for ten- to twelveyear- old campers we found 39 percent of the camps were higher by 1-3 percent, and 34 percent were lower by 1-3 percent. For nine years and under, we found 17 percent were up by more than 10 percent while 24 percent were down by 10 percent or more. For teens, a pattern of change was seen similar to last year. For example, 65 percent of the camps with increased teen enrollments were up by 1-7 percent while 60 percent of the camps who had experienced a decrease in teen enrollments said they were down by 1-7 percent.
Information on how camps financially supported campers through scholarships, donations, etc. was also collected. Similar to last year, most camps (84 percent) indicated their organization offered financial support of at least 50 percent of the camp costs to campers in need. When asked about the number of supported camper weeks generated, 76 percent of the camps stated they supported up to 199 camper weeks. Over 60 percent of the camps said their financial support of campers had not changed from last year. In terms of actual dollars for camper support, a slight increase was indicated with 44 percent of the camps (compared to 38 percent in 2006) saying they generated more than $25,000 for financial support of campers.
Lastly, many camp professionals are interested in the trends in camper return rates as well as enrollment of ethnic/minority campers. More than half the directors (54 percent) said they had camper return rates between 50-74 percent. Return rates seem very stable since 64 percent in 2007 and 62 percent of the directors in the 2005 and 2006 surveys said they had about the same number of returning campers. For camps with higher rates of returning campers, almost 22 percent said they had increased by more than 10 percent. For camps who had fewer returning campers, only 8 percent saw decreases greater than 10 percent. Almost no change was seen in ethnic/minority diversity in camp with 73 percent of the directors indicating the same enrollment as last year.
How Do Camp Characteristics Influence Camper Enrollments?
For the past two years, significant differences were often found based on camp characteristics such as type of camp (day/ resident); affiliation (agency/governmental, religiously affiliated, independent for profit, and independent nonprofit); and region of the country (Mid-America, New England, South, West, Mid-Atlantic). However, this year we saw fewer differences based on these characteristics. While a few differences were apparent, the message this year is that enrollment issues are more commonly experienced across all sectors of camps.
Does Type of Camp Matter?
The finding from last year's survey where resident camps generated more financial support for campers was repeated in 2007. Thirty-six percent of the resident camps indicated they raised more than $50,000 while only 11 percent of day camps generated this sum of money for campers. This money difference translated into more weeks of support for campers by resident camps. For example, over 57 percent of day camps said they generated 1-99 supported weeks for their campers while only 38 percent of the resident camps indicated this number of weeks, which leaves almost 20 percent more resident camps to generate higher numbers of financially supported weeks of camp.
The other area of difference was in enrollment of teens in their programs. Day camps had a split response from the camps that answered the survey. About 25 percent of the day camps indicated a decrease in teen enrollment compared to last year but another 35 percent said their numbers had increased (and were higher by at least 10 percent). Forty-eight percent of resident camps had more teens than last year and indicated a modest growth (between 1-7 percent) in teen campers. Overall these differences are somewhat minor and indicate that the issues around enrollment are commonly shared by camps.
Do Regional Influences Exist?
Does Camp Affiliation Make a Difference?
The following list highlights several other significant differences based on affiliation:
Informed Perspectives About Enrollment Trends
Issues around camper enrollment in our programs are like a hologram… if you hold the image one way, you see something in a clear way; yet shift the image even slightly, and a whole new perspective is seen. After three years of systematic data collection, we are beginning to better understand our base foundation but are constantly reminded that an individual camp's reality may be very different because of the microcosm of social and economic factors that surround it. With that caveat, the data from 2007 suggest that camper enrollments are steadily increasing and that the summer of 2007 was a very good year for getting children to camp.
Several messages can be taken from this study:
We hope these survey results provide camp decision-makers with accurate information that helps produce marketing and recruitment strategies and retention plans based on the most informed research data from the camp community. Thanks to the 622 ACA camps who took the time to complete the 2007 survey, we have valuable data from which to talk about trends and issues related to enrollment. We hope that even more directors will find this information valuable and contribute their information next October, so we can continue to make wise choices that lead to improved practices based on solid evidence.
M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is senior researcher for the American Camp Association.
Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at West Point.
Originally published in the 2008 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.