Camper Enrollment: Time to Hold a Steady Course

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

Every spring, the American Camp Association (ACA) "takes the pulse" on enrollment trends for the coming summer by asking camp directors to complete a survey to share their early perspectives on enrollment. The 334 directors that completed the 2008 Spring Enrollment Survey indicated nervous uncertainty. Almost 25 percent felt that enrollments were coming in lower than the prior year — yet another 40 percent felt enrollments were up. They expressed concerns over the direction of the economy, but many were mildly optimistic, because they felt they had established strong reputations for good programs and staff and were coming off a strong summer. Over 70 percent of them were trying to enroll youth into their camps whom would normally not get a camp experience, including children from urban low-income families. How accurate were these early views and how successful was the 2008 summer for ACA camps?

General Enrollment Highlights From Summer 2008

The following key observations for the 2008 summer emerged from the survey data. The discussion of these findings may also include substantial differences based upon type of camp, geographic region, affiliation, and session length (see details of these groups). A "different lens" often brought a better understanding to the generic observations.

Summer 2008 provided modest gains in camper enrollments. The early perceptions from the Spring '08 survey were fairly accurate. When asked how the Summer 2008 compared to 2007, directors said total enrollments were up (45 percent) or remained the same (27 percent); however, 27 percent found their enrollments were down. When asked how much up or down, most directors responded within a 1-3 percent shift. Over half the directors said summer 2008 was higher or the highest of the past five summers (see Table 1). However, steady yearly increases in enrollment seemed to plateau in 2008.

  • When analyzed by session length, the camps with the most gains were those offering five-plus weeks and three to four weeks (60 percent, 52 percent higher respectively) followed closely by session lengths less than one week (49 percent higher). A related finding was that 65 percent of the five-plus week camps also said the 2008 summer was higher or the highest enrollment over the last five years.
  • Interesting patterns emerged when looking at enrollments by Sections (see Map 1 and Map 2) with growth coming in the northern half of the U.S. and decreases in the lower southeastern quadrant of the U.S.

Camps have capacity for more campers. Over 44 percent of the camps said they operated at 90+ percent actual capacity this past summer, but a significant number (26 percent) had less than 80 percent capacity. However, the actual capacity of the camp was often not the targeted capacity level set by the camp administration. For example, 66 percent of the directors said that they met 90+ percent of their targeted capacity. When asked for reasons why they adjusted their capacity targets, the most popular reasons were they had not reached capacity for years (46 percent) or they limited for quality reasons (17 percent). Total camper weeks also were greater than last summer (see Table 2). When asked for estimates of total campers that attended their camps, 28 percent of the camps said they had each enrolled more than 1000 campers, and another 28 percent of the camps enrolled between 500-999 campers.

  • Almost 30 percent of resident camp directors said they were below 80 percent capacity compared to only 16 percent of the day camps. Not surprisingly, day camps generated more camper weeks than resident camps. For example, 44 percent of the day camps each generated more than 1750+ camper weeks while 46 percent of the resident camps each generated <750 camper weeks.
  • Independent for-profit and independent nonprofit camps had the highest rates of capacity (59 percent and 51 percent respectively at 90-100 percent capacity) while religiously-affiliated camps continued to experience challenges with 41 percent of the reporting directors indicating <80 percent capacity. Religiously-affiliated camps struggled to meet their adjusted capacity as well with only 54 percent meeting their 90-100 percent targeted capacity rates.
  • The most capacity still available is likely in one week or less camps (33-35 percent were <80 percent capacity) with the least room in the five plus week camps where almost three-quarters were at 90 percent+ capacity.
  • Capacity adjustment based on "not meeting capacity for years" was most prevalent within resident camps, religiously-affiliated and agency camps, and camps in the Mid- Atlantic and Western regions.
  • Agency (41 percent) and religiouslyaffiliated (29 percent) camps enrolled the most children with 1000+ in their programs.

Clientele is still "traditional." The perceptions of camp as an experience for middle- to upper-class-white children seemed to be true even though camp directors indicated in the spring they were trying to reach out to nontraditional campers. Middle- and upper-class families comprised the bulk of campers (59 percent, 21 percent respectively) while only 15 percent of the children came from poverty or lower-class families. When asked about enrollment of minority campers, almost no gains were apparent (79 percent same as last year). However, 18 percent of the camps had higher minority enrollments than last year. Over a third of the directors said between 1-5 percent of their campers were minorities, while another 28 percent said their camp population was between 6-10 percent minorities.

  • "Traditional campers" were especially true for the New England and Southern regions where almost 40 percent of the New England campers were from upper class families and the Southern region only had 2 percent of their campers from poverty/lower class families. Mid-America, Mid-Atlantic, and the Western regions were reaching larger numbers of poverty/lower class families (17 percent, 18 percent, 18 percent) but were still drawing predominantly middle-class children.
  • Independent nonprofit (23 percent) and agency (17 percent) camps tended to serve more poverty/low-income families. They also had greater minority populations with half of the independent nonprofits and over 58 percent of agency camps indicating up to 10 percent minorities.
  • Resident camps (17 percent) tended to serve more poverty/low income campers than did the day camps, but both were almost even on middle class children (59 percent, 57 percent respectively).
  • One week or less camps served more poverty/low-income children than did other session lengths. Almost 20 percent indicated they served this group as compared to the five-plus week sessions where only 5 percent of their campers were from poverty/low income families, and 65 percent were from upper class families. Interestingly, the shortest session camps (<one week) did not have a higher minority percentage. For example, <one week and five-plus week camps were almost identical (44 percent, 46 percent) on the 1-6 percent minorities category.

Camps have modest means to financially support campers (camperships, scholarships, etc.). In summer 2008 the ability to enroll financially supported campers remained about the same as the prior year (51 percent), but 41 percent indicated they enrolled 1-7 percent more. Interestingly, over 5 percent of all the directors said they had no financially supported campers. When asked how many financially supported camper weeks were generated, 35 percent of the camps said one to twenty-nine weeks and another 30 percent said between thirty to ninety-nine weeks. Almost half the directors (45 percent) had $25,000 or less to help send youth to camp, but almost one out of five directors had $100,000+ available to financially support campers. Interestingly, 45 percent of the directors said they each supported between one to forty-nine campers while another 18 percent said they financially supported two hundred plus campers.

  • The West, South, and Mid- America directors said their enrollment of supported campers was higher in summer 2008 than last year (52 percent, 44 percent, 43 percent respectively). Mid-America directors (28 percent) each supported two hundred plus campers while New England had the smallest range of support with 60 percent of the directors each supporting <fifty campers.
  • The only session length difference was that the shorter sessions (one week or less) experienced the greatest increases in financially supported campers (44 percent had higher enrollments of these campers).
  • The influence of affiliation was apparent in the financial support of campers. Directors of agency camps (48 percent) said their enrollments of financially supported campers had increased while 33 percent of the independent for-profit camps had higher enrollments of supported campers. Religiously-affiliated directors (16 percent) said their enrollments of supported campers were actually lower than last summer. Twenty-five percent of the agency camps and 22 percent of the independent nonprofit camps each supported two hundred plus campers during the 2008 summer. Ninety-one percent of independent for-profit camp directors said they each supported between one to fifty campers. This finding lead to the observation that 71 percent of the independent for-profit camps each generated fewer than fifty total financially supported camper weeks during summer 2008 compared to religiouslyaffiliated camps (48 percent); independent nonprofit camps (43 percent); and agency camps (41 percent) for that same range of one to fifty total camper weeks.

Camper enrollments based on gender and age stayed the same or slightly higher. The overall enrollment picture for gender was fairly positive. For example, directors said the enrollment of boys stayed the same (45 percent) or increased (27 percent). A similar trend was true for girls (49 percent the same, 30 percent higher enrollments of girls). While gender enrollments were in positive directions, the percentage of higher enrollments around gender was not as strong as in 2007 (see Table 3). The directors indicated similar trends in the age groups (see Table 4).

  • The only difference between day and resident camps was in the enrollment of the youngest campers. Only 30 percent of the resident camp directors saw higher enrollment of children under ten years old compared to 46 percent of the day camps.
  • Independent for-profit camp directors (39 percent) indicated higher enrollments of boys while agency camp directors (35 percent) had higher enrollment of girls.
  • Over 53 percent of directors of five-plus week sessions said their boys' enrollment increased for the summer 2008. These longer sessions also had increases in young campers (49 percent had increased enrollments of campers younger than ten years old).

What Enrollment Challenges Concern Camp Directors?

Since we do not have a crystal ball to help us see into the future, we asked directors to share their perceptions about enrollment concerns that may be troublesome for the next several years. Directors listed their top two enrollment concerns as well as responded to a series of opinion questions about societal challenges that could affect camper enrollments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of directors expressed a variety of concerns about the uncertainty of the current economy. These economic concerns focused primarily on keeping camp affordable to families and being able to pay the bills. The other top issues focused on the implications of changing societal demographics (geographic shifts in age groups, race/ethnicity changes, economically depressed areas, etc.); competition for campers' time (from other summer programs, schools, and family obligations); challenges around public awareness and marketing the camp experience, and generating financial support (camperships, scholarships, etc.). A wide array of other issues was mentioned including capacity and space issues, demanding parents, the school calendar, session lengths and timing issues, infrastructure concerns, and increased "headaches" related to late enrollments, slow payments, "no shows," and incomplete paperwork.

Directors were also asked to agree/ disagree with eight challenges that might have affected their summer 2008 enrollments. The following summary reflects the best wisdom shared through the directors' responses to these questions and may give insight to what is on the horizon for 2009 summer.

The effect of the economy on enrollments was mixed.
While 45 percent agreed that the economy affected their enrollments, almost an equal number (39 percent) disagreed with that view. These mixed opinions were reflected throughout all segments of the industry with no difference based on type, affiliation, region, or session length. However, some patterns emerged when analyzed by geographic areas who had at least 50 percent of their directors agree that the economy negatively affected their camps (see Map 3). Note that a comparison of Map 3 to Map 1 shows that directors may have believed the negative effect of the economy on enrollments was worse than it really was.

The effect of the school calendar on enrollments was mixed.
The viewpoints about school calendars' effect were almost evenly split. While 36 percent of the directors agreed that calendars negatively affected their camps, another 37 percent disagreed with the statement. While no significant differences were found based on camp characteristics, the ACA Sections in the southern belt of the US seem to be in the most agreement about the negative effect of changing school calendars (see Map 4).

The opinion that more parents enrolled their children in shorter sessions was mixed.
This question showed the most disagreement on perceptions by the directors. While 35 percent of the directors disagreed that more parents enrolled their children in shorter sessions, 28 percent agreed, and 38 percent had a neutral opinion. This move toward shorter sessions was strongest from independent for-profit and agency directors (40 percent, 31 percent respectively agreed); day camp directors (45 percent agreed); and directors with three- to four-week or two-week sessions (46 percent, 35 percent respectively, agreed).

Most camps accommodated children who wanted to come to their camps.
When asked if they had more campers than they could accommodate, 59 percent of the directors disagreed with this statement. For the 28 percent of the directors who could not accommodate all enrollment requests, they were primarily from camps with session lengths of five plus weeks. Parents waited longer to enroll their children in camp programs. Over half (54 percent) of the directors agreed that parents waited longer to enroll this year with only 28 percent of the remaining directors disagreeing. Agency camp directors (62 percent) and one week session directors (63 percent) experienced this challenge the most while directors of five-plus week sessions and independent for-profit camps disagreed with this viewpoint the most (40 percent, 33 percent respectively).

Camps experienced increased requests for camper financial support.
Fifty-six percent of the directors agreed with this statement with only 18 percent disagreeing. This perspective cut across all camps but was regionally felt more in Mid-America (64 percent) and the West (63 percent). Camps were able to meet the requests for camper financial support. An overwhelming number of directors (73 percent) said they were able to meet the financial requests from families this past summer. However, significant patterns of disagreement emerged from directors with longer sessions (28 percent of five-plus week and 24 percent of three to four week directors disagreed); independent for-profit (29 percent disagreed); day camp (16 percent disagreed); and directors from the West and Mid-Atlantic regions (19 percent, 14 percent disagreed, respectively).

The number of "local" campers remained about the same.
Over 80 percent of the directors disagreed or were neutral toward the idea that more "local" children were enrolled in their camps. The thought that parents might opt to enroll their children in camps closer to home to save money did not seem to materialize. How Does This Information Help? While summer 2008 was fairly positive, concerns are on the horizon regardless of what type of camp you are, who you work for, where you live, or how you choose to design the camp experiences for your campers. However, the data do not suggest drastic alarmist reactions, but rather thoughtful, realistic assessments and strategies that maximize flexibility in times of change and unsettledness. The following points need further consideration:

  • Camp may have the ability to offer camp opportunities to more children IF they are able to resolve their individual capacity issues. That may mean finding ways to align targeted capacity with actual capacity. This suggestion may be easier said than done since money to hire more staff or fix infrastructure may be scarce. Capacity issues related to quality experiences will continue to be challenging as directors try to maximize resources without sacrificing quality.
  • Financial support for campers seems to be increasingly important. Camps already saw increased requests from interested parents unable to afford this experience for their children. Simultaneously, the economic shifts may discourage the very donors needed to support this cause. Therefore camps will likely need support when designing strategies that help them solicit these funds.
  • Most camps have not made many gains in attracting campers from diverse socio-economic groups. With demographics shifting toward more diverse populations with geographic variability, we must use our research and educational resources to better communicate the value and relevance of the camp experience to all groups. Rather than continue to "compete" for the same traditional clientele, we need to reach out to new markets in new ways.
  • Camps will likely not escape rising societal challenges that may affect enrollments. The economy looks to be unsettled for the coming year. Population shifts will put pressure on community infrastructures, so the school calendar will likely continue to be a factor in some areas. Variety in session lengths will continue to be important as parents try to find a balance that fits their child and family. The point of stability may be for camps to be clear about their philosophy toward the camp experience, their goals and outcomes for their campers, and the unique opportunities offered by camps.

"Belt tightening" likely will happen for most of us this year. However, many experienced directors suggest we "take a deep breathe" and make reasoned decisions based on solid information and not "panic reaction". Most camps are coming off several good summers, and many of our organizations and businesses have had to weather other economic and societal challenges over the past 100 years. Perhaps if we feel uncertain as we travel this path, we might keep this quote in mind: "When nothing is sure, everything is possible" (Margaret Drabble). Our 20/20 Vision that calls for 20 million campers by 2020 is a continual inspiration as camps strive to provide enrollment opportunities for ALL interested campers.

Who Participated in the Enrollment Study?

  • A total of 525 camps responded (one out of five of all ACAAccredited ®/affiliated camps)
  • Affiliation of camps
    • 31% agency (including municipal and governmental)
    • 18% religious
    • 18% independent for-profit
    • 34% independent nonprofit
  • Clientele
    • 4% boys-only
    • 13% girls-only
    • 74% co-ed
    • 9% combination
  • Type of camp
    • 22% day
    • 78% resident
  • Most popular session length
    • 26% <1 week
    • 34% 1 week
    • 19% 2 weeks
    • 14% 3-4 weeks
    • 8% 5+ weeks
  • Regions
    • 37% Mid-America (Great Rivers, Illinois, Indiana, Northland, Ohio, St. Louis, Wisconsin, Michigan)
    • 24% Mid-Atlantic (Chesapeake, Keystone, New Jersey, New York, Upstate New York, Virginias)
    • 20% West (Evergreen, Northern California, Southern California/Hawaii, Oregon Trail, Rocky Mountain, Southwest)
    • 10% New England
    • 9% South (Texoma, Southeastern, Heart of the South)

M. Deborah Bialeschki, Ph.D., is senior researcher for the American Camp Association. contact her at, 765-342-8456, ext. 318.

Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at West Point.

Originally published in the 2009 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.