Summer Camp Enrollment Trends: A Time for Optimism?

by M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., and Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D.

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?
Some people question whether enrollment issues are different for day camps than resident camps, so we took a closer look at the information from that perspective. That comparison showed only a couple of areas with meaningful differences around narrowly focused concerns. The two main differences in 2007 were related to financial support generated by the camps and enrollment of teen campers.

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?
The last two years indicated quite a few regional differences around various aspects of enrollment. This year, the regional comparisons were much more similar. For example, all regions experienced increased enrollments from last year with at least half the camps stating growth, with the exception of camps in the West (46 percent said enrollments had increased). When asked how the summer of 2007 compared to last year, more than half the camps in Mid- America, New England, and the South said this summer was among the highest (or highest) of the past five summers. The West and Mid-Atlantic camps were close behind with slightly less than half able to make that same statement (see Table 5). The only areas with significant difference were related to gender, age, and financially supported campers.

  • While most regions saw increases in the girls attending camp, the greatest increases were seen in Mid-America, New England, and the West.
  • When comparing the numbers of young children who attended camp in 2007, camps in Mid-America, the West, and New England saw fewer campers under the age of ten. Camps in Mid- America, New England, and the South actually saw increases in the number of ten- to twelve-year-old campers, while the West and Mid-Atlantic remained constant.
  • When asked about the numbers of financially supported campers, camps from Mid-America and the West indicated the most growth in this area while the other regions stayed the same in their support.

Does Camp Affiliation Make a Difference?
Last year, we saw a number of enrollment differences based on camp affiliation (agency/ municipal, religious, independent for-profit, and independent nonprofit). While differences were noted again this year, they were not as dramatic as previous years. Across the board, at least 50 percent of the camps in each affiliation said enrollments in 2007 were higher than last year. Approximately onethird of all camps in each group said 2007 was their highest enrollment in the past five years. However, more than 25 percent of the religiously-affiliated and agency camps still experienced decreased enrollments.

The following list highlights several other significant differences based on affiliation:

  • Sixty-three percent of for-profit camps followed by nonprofits (50 percent) and agency camps (49 percent) filled to 90-100 percent capacity. Religiously affiliated camps still struggled with only 35 percent hitting that capacity level. Clearly one-third of the religious camps fell below the 80 percent capacity mark. However, when asked if they met at least 90 percent of their targeted capacity, all the affiliated groups had approximately 70 percent of their camps at that level.
  • Significant differences in the amount of money raised for financial support for campers were seen among the groups. Fifty-six percent of nonprofits and 50 percent of agency/governmental camps each raised at least $25,000 or more followed by 45 percent for-profit and 36 percent of religiously-affiliated camps. This difference also translated into similar findings for the number of weeks provided for financially supported campers with nonprofits generating the most weeks while religiously-affiliated offered the fewest weeks.
  • Increased interest in specialized activities was seen in all affiliations except in for-profit camps where only 14 percent indicated their campers were more interested in these activities.

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:

  • For the second consecutive year, camps in general experienced growth in enrollments with fewer camps indicating decreased enrollments by age and gender. Over half the camps put the 2007 summer as one of their best.
  • While regional differences around enrollment continue to fluctuate, fewer differences were evident this year.
  • Major enrollment differences between day and resident camps did not emerge again this year.
  • Religiously-affiliated camps may have reasons to feel some guarded optimism about enrollments. Last year's disparate enrollment statistics seemed to have moderated this year. However, religiously-affiliated camps still experienced significant enrollment challenges compared to other camps.
  • For the third year, enrollments of ethnic/minority campers did not experience any real growth in any segment of the camp community.
  • While most camps are generating dollars to help children enroll in camp who otherwise may not attend, these sponsorship levels have lots of room for improvement.

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.

Average Camp Enrollment for Participating Camps by 3-Digit Zipcode Area

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.