We're Down, We're Up, We Stayed the Same: Enrollment Challenges for Summer 2009

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

Every spring, the American Camp Association® (ACA) takes the pulse on enrollment trends followed by a fall survey that determines how enrollments actually went for that summer. In the spring of 2009, directors were nervous about the impact of the economic downturn in the U.S. on enrollments. Our early snapshot showed a camp community that was braced for a severe decrease in campers (48 percent anticipating lower enrollments). Rumors of camps closing fueled by media focused on the negative business climate and family hardships made for an apprehensive summer. So for the 553 camps that completed the survey, how bad was it really?

The Big Picture

When taking a national view, no doubt exists that many camps struggled in summer 2009 with 49 percent indicating lower enrollments than last year. However, there were also camps that had a very good summer (29 percent higher than last year). As we look at some of the trends, keep in mind that every year we have camps that do better or worse from the previous summer. For example, while 49 percent of this year's respondents said they had lower enrollments, 27 percent of the respondents from summer 2008 indicated they had experienced lower enrollments, so there was a new set of camps (22 percent) that experienced lower enrollments this summer. This fact doesn't change the reality that enrollments decreased, but it does make a difference when understanding how trends work. Another important point is that to best understand what underlies these trends often depends on other factors such as the type of camp, affiliation, region, session length, and other demographic factors.

Key Findings

Let's take a closer look at some key enrollment observations from summer 2009. For each general observation any significant difference based on type of camp (day/resident), affiliation (agency, religiously-affiliated, independent for profit, independent not-for-profit), region (New England, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-America, South, West), and session length (1, 2, 3-4, 5+ weeks) will be mentioned (see sidebar on for specific description of camps who participated in the survey). While it's nice to know the national "benchmark," the more specific focus around camp demographics is often more telling.

Camps Experienced Lower Enrollments for Summer 2009
Just under half of camps indicated lower overall enrollments (see Figure 1). However, the declines were not extreme with the largest percentage of decreases ranging between 1-7 percent (43 percent) with another third indicating >10 percent. Camps with higher enrollments mirrored this same trend with 55 percent experiencing 1-7 percent growth while just under a third experienced >10 percent increases in enrollment from last year. Ironically, total camper weeks generated stayed identical to last year (see Table 1). So while enrollment of campers may have been lower, the actual camper weeks remained steady. Twenty-five percent of the respondents said they had between 400-649 campers attend camp, 21 percent had between 650-1999, and 5 percent had 2000+ children last summer. Only 20 percent of the camps said they had less than a 50 percent camper return rate, and almost two-thirds felt their return rate was the same as 2008.

  • For-profit camps seemed most affected by the downturn with 65 percent saying they had lower enrollments followed by religious (50 percent), agency (45 percent), and nonprofits (41 percent).
  • Similar to 2008, day camps generated more camper weeks than did resident camps. For example, more than 1000 camper weeks were generated in 61 percent of day camps while only 46 percent of resident camps reached that level. For-profit camps had the highest generation of weeks with 32 percent of those camps indicating more than 2500 camper weeks in their programs compared to agency (15 percent), nonprofits (12 percent), and religious (10 percent).
  • When looking at who served more than 1000 campers during the summer, higher percentages were seen in day camps (24 percent), religious camps (34 percent), camps in the South (29 percent) and Mid-America (28 percent), and in camps offering one-week sessions (32 percent).
  • Camps that experienced a less than 50 percent return rate differed by affiliation with agency (25 percent) and nonprofits (23 percent) at that level. Regional differences were seen in the West (29 percent), South (27 percent), and Mid-America (24 percent).

More Camps Viewed This Summer as One of the Lowest Enrollment Periods
More camps (43 percent) viewed this summer as one of the lowest enrollments in the last five years (see Table 2). It is interesting that 26 percent of the respondents this year still thought summer 2009 was one of the best summers for enrollment over the last five years. No significant differences were found by type, affiliation, region, or session length. The counter-balance between those camps with higher and lower than normal enrollments existed in all kinds of camps.

Enrollments by Gender and Age Groups Were Down
Enrollments by gender and age groups of campers were down considerably from the previous summer (see Table 3 and Table 4). However, the majority of camps continued to indicate that enrollments stayed the same or increased from summer 2008. Often, the camps with lower enrollments were being off-set by camps with higher enrollments. For example, the enrollment of ten to twelve-year-olds was lower in 33 percent of the camps yet higher in almost 25 percent of other camps. The enrollment of girls was lower for 38 percent of the camps, stayed the same in 44 percent, and actually was higher in 19 percent.

  • The counterbalancing was also seen in the demographic breakouts. For example, lower boys' enrollments were seen in resident camps (35 percent compared to day at 30 percent) but were also countered by 29 percent of resident programs reporting higher enrollments of boys than day camps (15 percent). Girls' enrollment was up in 22 percent of resident camps compared to only 11 percent in day camps. For-profit camps indicated lower enrollments for both boys (50 percent) and girls (59 percent). No regional differences were seen, and only one difference by session length was seen with lower boys' enrollment in sessions three weeks or longer.
  • Age group enrollments showed no differences by type, affiliation, and region. Only enrollments of campers, who were nine years old and younger, differed by affiliation with 41 percent of for-profit camps experiencing lower enrollments compared to religiously-affiliated (33 percent) and agency and other nonprofits (26 percent).

The Majority of Camps Did Not Operate at Capacity
Similar to Summer 2008, the majority of camps did not operate at capacity. Only 40 percent of the camps said they were at or near actual capacity (considered 90 percent or higher). (See Figure 2) Almost a third were

  • As in previous years, more religiously-affiliated camps (43 percent) were below 80 percent actual capacity than were agency (33 percent), nonprofits (28 percent), and for-profit (24 percent). Regionally, Mid-America (39 percent), South (36 percent), and West (35 percent) did not make 80 percent capacity to the same extent as Mid-Atlantic (24 percent) and New England (17 percent). The only capacity issue observed by session length was where only 29 percent of one-week sessions achieved 90+ percent capacity compared to two-week (52 percent), 3-4 week sessions (42 percent), and 5+ weeks (51 percent).
  • Targeted enrollment levels differed significantly only by regions with 51 percent of Mid-America and 53 percent of West camps reaching 90+ percent of their targeted capacity while 60 percent of the camps in South, 66 percent in Mid-Atlantic, and 76 percent of New England reached this level.

The Longer the Session, The Lower the Enrollment
In general, the longer the session, the lower the enrollment. The percentage of camps with lower enrollments seems to increase with length of stay except for the two-week sessions, which had slightly higher enrollments (30 percent) than any other length. For example, 33 percent of one-week camps indicated they had lower enrollments while 28 percent said they were higher. The seven- to eight-week sessions seemed most affected with 51 percent of them indicating lower enrollments.

Camper Diversity Remained the Same or Decreased Slightly

Minority campers remained virtually unchanged with over one-third of the directors saying only 1-5 percent of their campers were from minority groups. The percentage of campers from poverty and low-income families actually decreased 3 percent this summer to 12 percent while the bulk continued to be from middle- and upper-class families (57 percent, 25 percent respectively).

  • A much higher percentage of religious (49 percent) and for-profit (48 percent) camps had only 1-5 percent of their campers from minority groups compared to agency (28 percent) and nonprofit (27 percent) camps. Similarly, 53 percent of camps with three- to four-week sessions and 47 percent of seven- to eight-week sessions had only 1-5 percent of their campers from minority groups compared to one-week (31 percent) and two-week (25 percent) sessions.
  • When looking at the economic levels of their families, 18 percent of nonprofit camps and 16 percent of agency camps primarily served poverty or low-economic families compared to religious (8 percent) and for-profit camps (1 percent). The for-profit camps tended to serve upper-income families (65 percent). As might be expected, poverty and lower-income families tended to have their children in one- and two-week sessions (14 percent and 20 percent respectively) while camps with three- to four-week sessions and five-plus-week sessions tended to serve upper-income families (47 percent and 50 percent respectively). Regions were similar with the exception of Mid-America camps who served more poverty and low-income families (16 percent) and much fewer upper-income families (13 percent).

More Campers Were on Scholarships This Summer Than Last Year
Fifty-three percent of the camps said they had more campers on scholarship this summer with one-third of the directors saying they were higher by >10 percent. About half the directors said their number of youth on camperships ranged between one to twenty-nine campers. Almost one out of five camps indicated they awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships in 2009. However, some camps (6 percent) gave no scholarships at all.

  • Fifty-six percent of day camps said they awarded less than thirty scholarships while only 43 percent of residents gave at that level. In fact, 18 percent of day camps gave no scholarships at all compared to only 5 percent of the resident camps. This difference resulted in 24 percent of the resident camps saying they gave more than $100,000 in scholarships.
  • Seventy-one percent of for-profit camps gave fewer than thirty scholarships compared to religious (45 percent), nonprofit (42 percent), and agency (29 percent). In fact, 18 percent of for-profit camps gave no scholarships while religious camps had higher numbers of children on scholarship than last year. When determining who contributed more than $100,000 in scholarships, agencies led the way (27 percent) followed by nonprofits (23 percent), religious (15 percent), and for-profit (9 percent) camps.
  • Regions were similar on scholarship levels with a few exceptions. For example, 15 percent of the Mid-Atlantic camps gave no scholarships compared to South (9 percent), Mid-America (7 percent), West (4 percent), and New England (2 percent). However, 70 percent of New England camps gave fewer than thirty scholarships followed by Mid-Atlantic (54 percent), South (43 percent), Mid-America (38 percent), and the West (30 percent). Seventy percent of New England camps said they were higher than last year on numbers of campers on scholarship followed by Mid-America (59 percent), Mid-Atlantic (50 percent), West (49 percent) and the South (38 percent).
  • Session length had an interesting influence on scholarships. Basically, the longer sessions did not award scholarships as often as did shorter session camps. For example, 22 percent of seven- to eight-week-session camps gave no scholarships compared to only 6 percent of one-week-session camps. However, 19 percent of three- to four-week camps said they gave more than $100,000 followed by 17 percent for two-week sessions, 13 percent for one-week session, and 11 percent for seven- to eight-week-session camps.

Directors' Opinions on Enrollment Challenges

We asked the directors about some of the challenges frequently mentioned in discussions about enrollments. The following points emerged for the summer 2009. The general findings for the national sample are provided. The information in parentheses indicates the directors who agreed strongest with the general finding based on their camps' demographics.

  • Sixty-five percent agreed that the economy negatively affected their enrollment (West; for-profit; three- to four-week sessions).
  • Thirty-three percent thought the school calendar negatively affected enrollments (Resident; New England/Mid-America/West; Nonprofit).
  • Seventy percent thought parents waited longer to enroll their children (Day).
  • Thirty-nine percent thought parents enrolled their children in shorter sessions (Day; three- to four-week sessions).
  • Twenty-one percent had more children want to come to camp than they could accommodate (New England; Nonprofit; two-week sessions).
  • Seventy-three percent had more scholarship requests than last year (two-week/three- to four-week sessions).
  • Twenty-seven percent had reduced funds for scholarships (Nonprofit).
  • Seventy percent were able to offer scholarships to campers that requested them (Resident; West/New England/Mid-America; Religious; one-week sessions).
  • Ten percent said H1N1 affected their enrollments (Resident; two- week sessions).
  • Thirty-two percent felt the children in their service area had more summer opportunities that competed with camp (Day).
  • Ten percent felt the economy negatively affected staff recruitment and hiring (South/West/New England; Nonprofit/Agency; one-week sessions).

What Have We Learned?

When preparing for next summer, several key messages can be gleaned from the summer 2009 enrollment survey. While camp professionals cannot control the economic climate and its effect on them or the families they serve, positive realities and potential actions can be found in the data. Some of these key messages do not differ from past years — rather they may be now more seriously considered because of the economy.

First, no easy recipe exists that can guarantee better enrollments for next summer. Undeniable hardships were experienced in many camps, but there was no clear indicator for enrollment "winners" and "losers." Total enrollments in summer 2009 were lower in every type of camp, especially for-profit camps. However, there were also camps in every category that had higher enrollments than last year. It was interesting that categories of camper weeks generated remained constant from last summer, which implied while the number of campers may have decreased, the change in camper numbers was not drastic enough to alter overall camper-week numbers. That observation could be influenced by smaller percentages of decline and longer stays by campers in camps that experienced increased enrollments.

Second, similar to last year, financial support for campers is increasingly important. While camps were able to meet most scholarship needs, they also received many more requests this year. This trend will likely persist as economic challenges continue to affect their families. A real concern could emerge if the economic downturn persists, because traditional organizations and donors who have supported camp scholarships may be less generous than in the past.

Third, even though demographics are changing across the country with more children found in minority groups, camps remain predominately white and often serve the most privileged children. The 20/20 Vision calls for a more inclusive approach as we strive for more opportunities for all children to attend camp. The challenge in the next few years may be how to tap these new markets while maintaining economically viable business models that keep enrollments up and camps at capacity.

The word "trends" implies periods of up and down movement. The business of camps will continue to be influenced by major societal impacts such as the economy, demographic shifts, and school reform. These trends are similar to a hologram. When "tilted" for a particular camp demographic like affiliation, region, etc., different nuances within the trends emerge. While national benchmarks are useful to provide the big picture, each individual camp must struggle to refine their recruitment strategies for the next summer based on their mission, goals, and philosophy. Hopefully, this article has provided some new perspectives from which camps can not only look outward to see how they compared to other camps, but has also provided reasons to look inward as they prepare for another summer of camp. What new risks will camps encounter and what efforts will they undertake in the next few years that will become the "traditions" of camps in the future? Perhaps the greatest challenge will be our ability to stay relevant and flexible as we enter our 150th year and advance our belief in the value of the camp experience to make a difference in the life of a child.

(For more detailed summary findings, go to www.ACAcamps.org/research/improve/enrollment_recruitment_survey.php.)

Who Participated in the Fall 2009 Enrollment Study?

  • A total of 553 accredited camps (22 percent) responded
  • Affiliation of camps
    • 23 percent agency (including governmental and municipal)
    • 18 percent religiously-affiliated
    • 25 percent for-profit
    • 34 percent nonprofit
  • Type
    • 31 percent day
    • 69 percent resident
  • Clientele
    • 4 percent boys only
    • 11 percent girls only
    • 78 percent co-ed
    • 8 percent combination
  • Most popular session length
    • 18 percent
    • 27 percent 1 week
    • 16 percent 2 weeks
    • 18 percent 3–4 weeks
    • 17 percent 5+ weeks
  • Regions
    • 8 percent New England
    • 36 percent Mid-Atlantic (ACA, Chesapeake; ACA, Keystone; ACA New Jersey; ACA, New York; ACA,Upstate New York; ACA, Virginias)
    • 30 percent Mid-America (ACA, Great Rivers; ACA, Illinois; ACA, Indiana; ACA, Northland; ACA, Ohio; ACA, St. Louis; ACA, Wisconsin; ACA, Michigan)
    • 11 percent South (ACA, Texoma; ACA, Southeastern; ACA, Heart of the South)
    • 15 percent West (ACA, Evergreen; ACA, Northern California; ACA Southern California/Hawaii; ACA, Oregon Trail; ACA, Rocky Mountain; ACA, Southwest

Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.