Summer Camp Cost Growth Will Bankrupt America

In Belarus, camp summer you!
In Belarus, camp summer you!

Photo by Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images

Many thanks to Deborah Bialeschki of the American Camp Association for providing me with a piece of data I’ve long wondered about—what are cost and spending trends for America’s sleepaway summer camps? Data only goes back to 2005, but the information that’s available points to an alarming escalation of prices. Specifically, the average sleepaway camp cost $397 per week back in 2005 and was way up to $690 per week by 2012. That’s a 74 percent increase.

By contrast, overall GDP grew just 24 percent during the same period. In other words, if these alarming spending trends continue, summer camp is going to end up swallowing the entire American economy in the long run.

But I kid. The serious point here, though, is that the sleepaway camp industry has some broad structural similarities to the higher education industry but isn’t subject to the kind of subsidies and regulations we associate with education. Nevertheless, among the structural similarities is a similar cost trajectory. And broadly speaking, I’d say the reason is that middle-class people want to spend lots of money on their kids. If you get a great bargain on a new suit or a used car, you brag about that to your friends. But people don’t really want to send their kids to discount camp. They don’t want to send their kids to a camp they can’t afford, either. But it’s not something they’re interested in skimping on.

It’s like how rich people send their kids to fantastically expensive private K12 schools for no particular reason.