Sleep-Away Camp and Higher Ed: 8 Thoughts

This past weekend we dropped our younger daughter off at sleep-away camp. As we were helping her carry her trunk and meeting her counselors and bunk mates I had the following thoughts:

July 16, 2012

This past weekend we dropped our younger daughter off at sleep-away camp. As we were helping her carry her trunk and meeting her counselors and bunk mates I had the following thoughts:

1. Camp Prices and Tuition: Her two-week sleep-away camp costs about $1,000 a week. This is less than some comparable summer camps in our area ($1,500 a week), and more than some nonprofit Y camps we also looked at ($500 to $750 a week). This $1,000 a week is almost exactly what the sticker price is for a year of private, non-profit higher ed.   The range of camp prices seems to track quite closely to the range of higher ed prices.   

2.  Changes in Camp Prices and Tuition: We are sending our daughter to 2 weeks of sleep-away camp. A full 8-week summer session at $8,000 is outside of our family budget (as we are paying for camp for both of our teenagers). Yet when I was my kids' age my parents sent me to 8 weeks of private camp each summer. My intuition is that camp prices have increased at the same rate as tuition prices. Each is a victim of Baumol's cost disease, as camp counselors and staff can't be any more productive but the options for skilled counselors has increased (thus causing salaries to rise and my daughter to have a counselor in her bunk from New Zealand). I imagine that the costs of services that camps must pay for have increased as well, from insurance to better quality sail boats, and these costs have been passed along to in higher camp fees.

3.  The New MOOC?: Maybe Harvard and MIT will spin-off campX from edX. Or the Coursera folks will introduce Campera. Campdacity?  2013 will be the year of the Massively Open Online Camp.

4. A Shorter Residential, Bundled, and Immersive Experience? Perhaps we wouldn't go so far to say that we send our kids to sleep-away camp to prepare them for sleep-away college.   But all of us immediately grasp that the value of sleep-away camp is that it is a residential, bundled, and immersive experience.   Yes, we hope that our offspring pick up a few new skills, but mostly we are paying for the social learning and maturation that accompany time spent with other kids and counselors in the woods by a lake. The idea that traditional residential higher ed is going to go away anytime soon is only tenable if you also think that the sleep-away summer camp is also going to disappear.  What might change, however, is that as prices keep increasing parents like us may find ways for our kids to get the residential college experience, just not the experience we had ourselves. The wealthiest and those able to best work the system will always find ways to pay for the full 4 years (or 5 or 6), but many more people will be looking for compressed (and therefore less expensive) immersive social postsecondary education models.   Remember, we only paid for 2 weeks of camp.

5.  Technology, Productivity, Camps and Campuses:  Why am I such a giant techie fanboy when it comes to higher ed, but incredibly happy about the technology ban (nothing with an on switch) at my daughter's sleep-away camp? At $1,000 a week I expect a counselor-to-camper ratio that supports individualized attention.  Maybe the seminar class with 15 students is the equivalent of my daughter's cabin (9 kids, 2 counselors, 1 counselor-in-training).   Remember that a $50,000 yearly tuition is only the sticker price, actual costs vary widely (and are paid from a number of sources). Camp prices, for the most part, are what campers pay.  If every student paid $1,000 a week (or more - professors are way more expensive than counselors) then we could have only small classes (only seminars), and much less need for technology. In the world that we live in we still have some lectures, some big classes, and technology (when used wisely) is the best tool I know to make big classes act and feel like small classes.  Technology is one of the keys to raising productivity in higher ed.  We don't need (or want) more productivity at sleep-away camp, and we are happy that everyone can leave the technology at home.

6.  Face-to-Face Summer Camp and Online Learning:  How to square a love of the traditional summer sleep-away camp with an overarching enthusiasm for online learning?   If we admit that precisely what makes sleep-away camp so special is that it is "sleep-away", how can we ever say that residential education is any less wonderful because it is "residential"?  We shouldn't.   Online education is never a substitute for face-to-face learning.  Students enrolled in fully online programs are not (for the most part) replacing a traditional face-to-face experience with online studies.  Rather, they are replacing "no higher ed" with "online higher ed".   The number 18 to 22 year olds that have no need to generate an income or take care of dependents is a small subset of all those people in need of higher ed skills and credentials.   If we as a society could figure out a way to pay for the lost work wages and child care expenses necessary for adult workers to attend a residential college then we wouldn't need fully online programs.   As much as we'd all love to spend a few weeks at summer camp I imagine that most of us need to go to work.

7. Blended Learning and Summer Camp: Why not practice blended sleep-away camping? Sing-alongs, campfires, and swim lessons part of the day, virtual board games and an iPhone app based friendship bracelet weaving lesson for a few hours each week? I think that the answer comes back to productivity.  We use blended learning to make higher ed more productive.  Online materials, lectures, and diagnostic / formative assessments make precious classroom time with the professor more productive.  Moving some teaching to the virtual space allows us to pass more students through the same number of classrooms and labs, therefore more fully utilizing our high fixed cost classroom/lab assets. A blended learning course is a course that we have invested more inputs into the class (through the efforts of learning designers and faculty course development / re-development), inputs that translate in desirable outcomes around learning and retention.  We don't need summer camp to be more productive.

8. Our Rising Service and Amenity Expectations: I couldn't help but to notice that things were a bit nicer at summer camp then I remember. The food a bit more appealing.  The bunks a bit nicer.  The sports equipment in a bit better shape.  There also seemed to be more staff running around then I recall from my sleep-away camp experience.  A bigger camp medical staff.  More assistant camp directors.  And it was all how I expected it to be for my daughter.   We could discuss who is responsible for our rising expectations for services and amenities at camps and colleges.   Is this a case of supply-induced-demand, or demand-induced-supply?  Camps and campuses have definitely gotten more expensive since I was a participant in both, but they have also inarguably become nicer places in which to mature and learn.


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