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What high-end summer camps say about college admissions and pricing (essay)

Contentious debates about rising college costs during the academic year make summer a welcome break from bad news.  One recent headline was “Political Storm Stirring over Student Loans.” The next day a New York Times editorial urged, “Subsidize Students, Not Tax Cuts!” These articles, unfortunately, forecast that summer is going to provide no vacation from higher education’s political heat wave.  It merely shifts the focus from the campus to camp.

That’s because the spending and choices associated with the American ritual of sending a child to summer camp today is a rehearsal for the kinds of decisions that will face a family about five years later when they consider sending the same child to college. It also reinforces how advantages and inequities are acquired early in the American college sweepstakes. 

For a relatively small portion of prospective college students and their parents who are serious about selective college admissions, here is how choices and opportunity costs have brought camp and campus into a seamless web of deliberations far beyond the planning and pocketbooks of most American families.

How Much Does It Cost?

The answer is that it all depends -- camps are comparable to colleges in their range of prices and services. Among the numerous possibilities is “Pine Forest Camp,” located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, conspicuous because it was selected by The New York Times as the subject for a front-page feature story on the changing economics of camp. A glance at the Pine Forest website indicates that in 2011 the charge for seven weeks of a full summer for a stayover camper was $9,700.

Official camp charges do not include such incidentals as travel and supplies.  There is considerable discretion on how much parents must pay versus how much they choose to pay.  And, for families who are newcomers to deciding about camp for their children, there is new information to absorb about camp expenses. The camp’s website provides a camp packing list.  Some clothing items “are only available through Bunkline" -- an internet site for purchase of camper gear. In addition to clothing and accessories, parents can pay for special optional programs: superstar tennis, superstar golf, horseback riding, top cooks, and one-on-one fitness.

Camp as College Prep

Pertinent for connecting camp to college, an upscale camp such as Pine Forest showcases on its website that it offers as a supplement a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep course. The catalog elaborates that, “In SAT Prep, campers will spend 4 hours a week preparing for the SAT by learning test-taking techniques and taking 3 practice tests during the summer. Campers have a competitive edge when they return to school in the fall. This extra course is taught by a certified teacher and SAT tutor. Most participants improve their scores by over 100 points."

An option in the leadership track for campers is the “College Bound” program. It is not completely clear whether this entails added charges. Or, if it does, how much? This detail is crucial because it can drive up expenses. Its availability suggests that the clients of the camp are highly concerned about college admissions.  The “College-Bound program combines the best parts of being a camper with additional responsibilities and challenges. 11th graders live together with counselors and enjoy the full range of Hi-Seniors activities. CAs participate in leagues, inter-camp games, socials, Color Days, Banquet, Cabaret…the best parts of camp! Plus CAs have unique ‘college-bound’ opportunities.”

The CAs have a trip to Washington, D.C., with visits to American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Holocaust Museum, the Kennedy Center, and on the way back to camp, a visit to Pennsylvania State University.  The Boston trip introduces camper-students to Boston University, Harvard University, and Boston College, along with walking tours of Cambridge and historic Boston.  Finally, the trip to New York City provided visits to New York University, Greenwich Village, and Broadway.

How Far and How Fast Are Costs Rising?

Both colleges and camps are scrutinized for their rising costs and prices over the long haul. In 1931, when Pine Forest Camp first opened, a seven-week stay cost $85. The summer camp in 1931 costs about 114 times as much today, 80 years later.

Did summer camp really cost 114 times more than now? This may be technically accurate – but it is a calculation so misleading as to be incorrect because it is incomplete.   When one accounts for inflation, that $85  in 1931 translates to $1,263.68 in 2011 dollars. Summer camp has increased by 767 percent -- or, stated another way, it is about eight times more expensive than it was in 1931.  As for comparing costs of college and camp, college presidents may find some relief from critics in now being able to document that colleges are not alone in escalating prices.

Extra Expenses and the Real Cost of Attendance

As preview for the peculiar consumerism of rising college costs, consider a recent development about summer camp expenses that made front page headlines in The New York Times article, “To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets.” A number of families were chartering private jets from New York and Philadelphia to take their children to rustic summer camps in rural Maine.  What started as an infrequent act spread in popularity, so much so that the small airports in Bangor and Augusta had to increase services to accommodate this expensive practice.  Why would parents pay huge amounts for air service instead of the traditional drive in the family station wagon or SUV?  The explanations provided a look at family discretionary choices about their children’s education and related support services.

Some parents explained that chartering a private jet was useful because it compressed round-trip travel time from several days to six hours.  This could be justified as effective and, perhaps, efficient.  There was a secondary, social effect: bragging rights and prestige among parents and children in which chartering the private jet conferred some reflected prestige of “conspicuous consumption.” All constituents henceforth had to be at least aware of this level, whether they mimicked it or not.

All this took place outside the purview of camp officials.  To the contrary, for some camp staff, it was a disconcerting clash with the values and experiences of camp life they wished to transmit to adolescents. Regardless of the camp administrators’ views, there was little they could do to encourage or discourage the practice.  Parents, meanwhile, had to take these factors into consideration about camp expenses and lifestyle. The summer camp economy had become financially stratified by official price plus added discretionary expenses subject to expensive status pressures. This was a forewarning of decisions about college prices and choices that a family would make in the future.  Most important, it shows how numerous variables need to be considered when one calculates the genuine cost of attendance.

Cost of Attendance (COA). Connections to College Costs: From Camp Back to the Campus

Camps and colleges use similar language such as “tuition and fees” charges. Second, a camp and a campus have comparable investments in residential physical plant with recreational and instructional facilities.  A residential camp enrolling 450 children has an annual budget of more than $2 million, including $1 million for salaries for a staff of 500.  Annual maintenance is about $700,000.  The residential dining hall at Pine Forest serves 4,200 meals per day for a summer total expense of $500,000. Third, the proliferation of expensive accessories illustrates how expenses can snowball. The connection between camp and campus becomes more evident when one recalls that a camp offered two optional programs for which families would have to pay extra: the SAT prep program and the Leadership program dealing with college campus visits.

Escalation of supplements was the focus of another New York Times article last summer on the quest for admissions advantage that high school seniors gain by enrolling in (and paying for) programs that provide unusual summer experiences geared to writing an impressive college application essay.  This new, expensive option in the summer experience was called “priceless fodder for the cutthroat college application process. Suddenly the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past."

If one knows that such pre-college socialization and programs make a difference in who goes where to college and how well they are prepared, does one then include the camp and other activities in plan for compensatory programs that increase promote genuine equity and access? The sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman observed in their 1968 classic work, The Academic Revolution, that for the children of education-minded American families, going to college is not a sprint, but a marathon.  Some competitive families start the preliminary heats of this race early, with summer camp as the racer’s edge.

Forty years ago John Gardner, in his 1961 book, Excellence -- asked, “Can we be equal -- and excellent, too?” High prices at camp and campus signal that the answer for today is, “Fat chance!”

John Thelin is professor of higher education & public policy at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Press, 2011).

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