Hints of Positive Enrollment Trends in Turbulent Economic Times

By Laurie Brown, Ph.D., and M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D.
To camp professionals, camp enrollment trends serve as an important indicator of the overall health of the industry, and are particularly important in uncertain economic times. Every year, day and resident camps from around the US are invited to complete the American Camp Association (ACA) online enrollment survey in the spring as a "preview" of the coming summer and again in the fall to provide an accurate read on enrollment and staffing trends. Last year's 2009 fall results indicated that nearly half of all camp respondents reported a decrease in camper enrollment compared to the previous year, and almost two-thirds of the camps felt that the economy negatively impacted their enrollments in some way. Most economists shy away from predicting whether the current economic situation in the United States will continue to deteriorate or if it has hit bottom and is rebounding. For the camp community, the enrollment for summer 2010 might provide a glimpse into how camps are doing in a turbulent economy. Given the responses from camp directors from across the country, what do we know about camp enrollment during the 2010 summer?
 

The Big Picture

The great news is that nearly half of the camps felt their enrollments were higher in 2010 than in 2009, while only 31 percent felt their enrollments had declined. Even though that decline is still problematic, it is much lower than the 49 percent that reported decreased enrollment in 2009. Interestingly, it looks like overall camper weeks stayed about the same as last year (see Table 1). Given the possibility that enrollment may be going up, and camper weeks may be holding steady, the next important question to answer is how trends varied across day and resident camps, by region, by session length, and by affiliation type. The rest of this article discusses comparisons of survey responses across camp type (day/resident), affiliation (agency/government, religiously-affiliated, independent for-profit, and independent nonprofit), ACA region (New England, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-America, South, and West), and the most popular session lengths (1, 2, 3–4, and 5+ weeks). The sidebar on page 64 provides a breakdown on the types of camps that responded to this survey, which should be helpful when deciding how these results relate to each specific camp. While camps across these categories reported generally similar enrollment trends for 2010, some subtle differences were found related to enrollment, scholarships, and staffing.
 

Overall Enrollment Trends

Overall, the enrollment trends are very positive. Nearly half of all respondents reported higher enrollments for 2010. Like last year, nearly 50 percent of the respondents said they strategically planned for lower enrollments; however, nearly 37 percent of the camps felt their enrollment in 2010 was at least somewhat higher than their annual enrollments for the past five years (see Table 2). Compared to 2009, more camps (65 percent) this year reported operating at or near capacity. The shorter sessions still seem to have the highest enrollments with 38 percent of camps that have one-week sessions reporting higher enrollments than last year.
 
These positive trends should not overshadow the difficulties faced by some camps during the 2010 summer. Just over 40 percent of the camps felt their enrollment in 2010 was among the lowest, if not actually the lowest, enrollment year of the last five years, and nearly one-third of the camps said they operated below 80 percent capacity. Like last year, the most notable decreases occurred within the longer session lengths (5+ week sessions). It also appears that there was a subtle difference in the overall size of the enrollment decline compared to last year. Of the respondents who reported a decline in enrollment in 2010, over 60 percent reported that their enrollment decline was somewhere between only 1 and 7 percent while just over 20 percent indicated that their enrollment declined 10 percent or more (compared to over 30 percent in 2009). Overall, these numbers may optimistically indicate that overall enrollment went up, and among the camps that had decreased enrollments, the declines were less than what we saw last year.
 
Here are some of the enrollment differences across the primary camp categories:
  • Approximately one-third of the day and resident camps felt they operated below 80 percent of their capacity. More religiously-affiliated camps reported that they operated at 80 percent or less capacity than any other affiliation type. There were also significant differences by ACA region, with camps from the Mid-American region operating with the largest percentage at or below 80 percent capacity. On the flip side, nonprofit camps and camps from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions had the highest percentage that reported operating at 90 percent capacity or above.
  • In 2009, day camps appeared to generate more camper weeks than resident camps. This year, the majority of resident camps (51 percent), not day camps (42 percent), indicated they had more than 1,000 camper weeks. Religiously-affiliated camps had the highest percentage (35 percent), reporting more than 2,500 camper weeks, followed by for-profit camps (29 percent).
  • Generally, for-profit camps appeared to serve the lowest number of campers per camp with 66 percent of for-profit camps reporting an overall enrollment of less than 500 campers. The South had the lowest percentage of camps serving less than 500 campers. Thirty-seven percent of agency-affiliated camps reported serving more than 1,000 campers, followed by religiously-affiliated camps (28 percent) and camps in the West (41 percent). • Like last year, nearly two-thirds of all respondents felt their return rate remained steady, which means that 2010 may have been a good year for recruiting new campers. Agency and nonprofit camps had the highest percentage (24 percent) reporting a less than 50 percent return rate.
 

Enrollment Trends by Camper Type

In order to get an idea of how enrollment varied across the different types of campers, survey results were compared for boys and girls, by camper age, for campers belonging to minority groups, and for international campers. Like last year, roughly 45 percent of camps felt that enrollment for boys and girls stayed about the same in 2010 (see Figure 1). Most of the camps (70 percent) that reported a decrease in either boys or girls said the decrease ranged from only 1 to 7 percent, which is consistent with the overall rates of decline from last year. It does appear, though, that among the camps that reported decreased enrollment based on gender, more camps reported a 10 percent or greater decline for boys than for girls.
 
Like for boys and girls, it appears that most camps felt enrollments stayed the same across the primary age groups (nine years old or younger, ten to twelve years old, and teenagers; see Figure 2). Over 40 percent of camps felt their enrollments of the youngest campers and those who were ten to twelve years old stayed the same. Most camps that enrolled campers from minority groups or had international campers felt that these groups also stayed about the same as in previous years.
 
There were some interesting trends in camper demographics when compared across camp type, region, affiliation, and session length:
  • In 2010, the percentage of camps who indicated greater enrollments for boys and girls increased (35 percent for boys and 30 percent for girls), with some interesting differences based on camp types. For girls, the greatest increases came at resident camps (32 percent) and agency camps (35 percent). Resident camps had the largest increases for boys as well (39 percent), but for-profit camps reported the largest increases in boys' enrollment (43 percent).
  • In terms of campers from minority groups, the majority of day camps and resident camps reported their camper enrollments were comprised of 10–15 percent from minority groups. Significant differences were found between affiliation types with more agency camps reporting the greatest percentage of enrollments from minority groups (11–15 percent), which was more than any other affiliation type. Enrollments of campers from minority groups did not vary across region, although it appeared that camps from the South and Mid-Atlantic regions enrolled a slightly greater percentage of campers from minority groups.
  • There were also some interesting differences between camp types and the economic situation of the families they serve. About 60 percent of both day and resident camps said their families' economic situation was predominantly middle income. Nonprofit camps reported the highest percentage of campers from poverty families in their enrollments, and for-profit camps had the highest percentage (54 percent) of their enrollments from high-income households. Seventy-five percent of agency and religiously affiliated camps indicated they served campers primarily from middle-income families. It also appeared that about a third of the camps from the New England region served high-income families, while the Western region had the highest percentage of camps (10 percent) who served primarily campers from low-income households.
  • About 63 percent of all of the camps who responded to this survey reported that their enrollment of return campers stayed about the same; however, another 22 percent said that their enrollment of returning campers decreased from last year. There were no notable differences across the various camps for return rates except by region. Of all the camps that responded to this survey, camps from the Mid-Atlantic region had the highest return percentage with 40 percent indicating that returning campers represented 75 percent or more of their overall enrollment.
 

Trends in Scholarships and Financial Assistance

Like last year, a large number of camps indicated that the number of campers receiving some kind of financial assistance increased from the previous year, but the percentage of camps reporting an increase in scholarships actually decreased from 53 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2010. The majority of camps (55 percent) supported between one and ninety-nine camper weeks through scholarships or financial assistance with about the same number of camps indicating they awarded between $10,000 and $50,000 in 2010. When asked what types of discount options are available when enrolling a camper, 50 percent of the camps said they offer an early registration discount, 43 percent a sibling discount, 23 percent a multiple-session discount, 13 percent a discount based on a sliding scale, and 28 percent said they adjust their fees based on families' financial situations. Scholarships and financial assistance tended to vary depending on camp type, region, and affiliation:
  • In this survey, camps were asked to indicate how many campers received financial support for at least 50 percent of their camp costs. In response to this question, 44 percent of resident camps indicated they had fifty or more campers receiving financial support, while only 24 percent of day camps supported fifty or more campers at this level. There were also differences by affiliation: 61 percent of agency camps said that they had fifty or more campers receiving at least 50 percent financial support compared to 95 percent of the for-profit camps that had less than fifty campers on financial support. Across regions, Mid-American had the highest percentage (52 percent) of camps reporting that they provided fifty or more campers with at least 50 percent financial support.
  • Like last year, it once again appeared that resident camps gave more scholarships than day camps. Eighty-two percent of resident camps said they awarded more than $10,000 each year, while 73 percent of day camps awarded more than $10,000. There were no significant differences across affiliation types or regions for the amount of money awarded to campers in 2010.
 

Trends in Staffing

Given the widespread impact of today's economic situation, it is likely that camps might see changes related to staff recruitment. This year, camps did not feel that recruiting staff to work at camp was a challenge compared to previous years (45 percent felt recruitment was easier this year); however, the types of staff members who were hired changed. The percentage of returning staff, for example, was lower in about one-quarter of the camps. Twenty-seven percent said that their percentage of international staff also decreased, and among those that reported a decrease, 24 percent said it was a decrease of greater than 10 percent. In general, there were no significant differences between camp type, affiliation, or location when it came to staffing issues.
 

Directors' Opinions about Their Enrollments

Camp directors who completed this survey were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with several economic and societal challenges that may have impacted their enrollments in 2010. One interesting change to note was the respondents' feelings about the negative impact of the economy on their enrollments: 65 percent of the camps agreed with this statement last year and only 60 percent agreed this year. Other opinions of directors included:
  • 40 percent agreed that changes in the school calendar negatively affected camp enrollment
  • 62 percent agreed that parents waited longer to enroll their children compared to previous years (this is down from 70 percent from last year)
  • 30 percent agreed that parents enrolled their children in shorter sessions this year (compared to 39 percent from last year)
  • Only 35 percent agreed with the statement that more kids wanted to come than could be accommodated
  • 50 percent agreed they had more requests for scholarships this year than in previous years (down from 73 percent from last year)
  • 75 percent felt they were able to provide scholarships to campers who requested them (up from 70 percent last year)
 

Getting Better, Worse, or Holding Steady?

There are several interesting trends that camp directors might consider when planning for 2011. Before summarizing the key findings of the enrollment survey, though, it is important to remember the nature of this survey and how these findings should (and should not) be used.
 
First, this survey was optional and all camps were invited to complete it. Fewer people responded to the survey this year (414 compared to 553 in 2009), which reduces the size of the differences we might see between camp types. It is also important to keep in mind that the camps that completed this survey do not represent the entire breadth of camp types and locations across the country. Finally, economic trends are tools that are useful for future planning but should not be used as a prediction of the future. The current economic climate is difficult to define, and camps should pay closest attention to trends within their specific region, clientele, or mission.
 
All in all, the results of this survey indicate that camp enrollments are stable or on the rise in most camps. Most of the indicators in this survey were improvements from last year, and some of the areas of decline do not appear to be declining any faster this year than in previous years. Some of the key messages from the fall enrollment survey include:
  • The overall number of camper weeks increased from 2009 to 2010, even though over 30 percent of camps still report operating at or below 80 percent capacity.
  • It seems that camps did not give out as much scholarship money this year compared to last year.
  • Although most continue to believe that the economy negatively affected their camp programs, almost half of the directors of all camp types reported higher enrollments this year.
  • The biggest sources of declines in enrollments were among camps that offer longer sessions and have higher weekly fees.
  • Enrollment at nonprofit camps, camps that offer shorter sessions, and camps that have an overall lower weekly fee appeared to hold steady between 2009 and 2010.
  • Nearly 37 percent of the directors reported that their 2010 enrollment was higher than most of the past five years, while only 26 percent of directors felt this way in 2009.
 
The findings from this survey show some promising overall enrollment trends. While a considerable percentage of camps continue to experience decreases in enrollment, this decline appears to be slowing from last year. It is important to consider all of the various realities discussed in this report when planning for the future; however, camp directors should be encouraged that the industry appears to be taking a strong step forward during these difficult financial times.

Who Participated in the Fall 2010 Enrollment Study?

  • A total of 414 accredited camps (18 percent) responded
  • Affiliation of camps
    • 25 percent agency (including governmental and municipal)
    • 20 percent religiously-affiliated
    • 20 percent for-profit
    • 35 percent nonprofit
  • Type
    • 24 percent day
    • 76 percent resident
  • Clientele
    • 4 percent boys only
    • 13 percent girls only
    • 76 percent co-ed
    • 6 percent combination
  • Most popular session length
    • 23 percent < 1 week
    • 34 percent 1 week
    • 17 percent 2 weeks
    • 16 percent 3–4 weeks
    • 8 percent 5+ weeks
  • Regions
    • 16 percent New England
    • 19 percent Mid-Atlantic (ACA, Chesapeake; ACA, Keystone; ACA, New York and New Jersey; ACA, Upstate New York; ACA, Virginias)
    • 34 percent Mid-America (ACA, Great Rivers; ACA, Illinois; ACA, Indiana; ACA, Northland; ACA, Ohio; ACA, St. Louis; ACA, Wisconsin; ACA, Michigan)
    • 20 percent South (ACA, Texoma; ACA, Southeastern; ACA, Heart of the South)
    • 12 percent West (ACA, Evergreen; ACA, Northern California; ACA Southern California/Hawaii; ACA, Oregon Trail; ACA, Rocky Mountain; ACA, Southwest)
 
Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is director of research for the American Camp Association. She can be contacted at dbialeschki@ACAcamps.org.
 
Laurie Browne is a research assistant with ACA and has recently earned her doctorate in parks, recreation, & tourism from the University of Utah. During the summer, Laurie is the director of Summer Programs at Rowland Hall School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Contact the author at Laurie.Browne@health.utah.edu.
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