Summer is here, and I’ve been thinking about camp. For Jews, summer camp is a long standing institution full of first loves, bug bites, bug juice, Israeli shlichim, a modicum of Hebrew, bunks, s’mores, and Friday night services.
People seem to love camp. Adults often recall their years at summer camp with some affection, kids look forward to camp all year long, and there is a significant number of people who have never quite outgrown the summer camp experience.
Among the few critiques of Jewish summer camping is the cost. It is expensive. According to Jdata, the average per-week cost of Jewish overnight camp in 2011 was $1,230. Even if one accounts for scholarships and subventions, it is still expensive. And people love it. But how do Jewish families, even those with two working parents, justify the cost of camp?
The answer may not be educational. It may be economic.
[note: this is going to get geeky for a second, but bear with me]. A better assessment of the cost of camp lies not in the price tag, but in what economists refer to as the “opportunity cost.” Wikipedia defines opportunity cost as “the value of the best alternative forgone.” In making a choice about how to spend one’s money or time, one necessarily excludes other ways to spend that dollar or that hour. If I spend an afternoon in the park, I’m not spending it at work. The opportunity cost of spending an afternoon in the park can be calculated any number of ways (productivity, how much I would have earned had I been at work, and so on), but the cost associated with that choice is called the “opportunity cost.” There is always an opportunity cost.
Economist Carmel Chiswick reminds us that Jewish choices have opportunity costs, too. Spending a Saturday in synagogue means one cannot spend that same time at work or at the park. She explains that Jewish education has opportunity costs as well: Sunday school means giving up on weekends away or on another workday, and weekday supplementary schools mean that someone (either a parent or a caregiver) has to spend his or her time driving carpool (and therefore not at work). Children feel the opportunity cost of supplementary school most keenly; most would rather be doing anything other than sitting in school after having sat in school all day. They experience opportunity cost as what they imagine they’re missing out on.
Day schools also have an opportunity cost that can be calculated in terms of the choices a family makes to send their child to a Jewish day school that may not be as academically rigorous as a non-sectarian private school or as diverse as a public school. The opportunity cost here cannot be measured in time, exactly, because the student has to be in school anyhow, but in the potential benefit of other forms of schooling. Maybe the student is losing out on some opportunity by going to a smaller Jewish school as opposed to a bigger public or private one.
Here is where summer camp gets interesting. School is out during the summer, which means that parents are looking for things to occupy their children so that they (the parents) can continue working, as their jobs demand. In the search for economical opportunities for kids during the summer, overnight summer camp is a great deal because there is virtually no opportunity costs. There is no carpool to drive, no significant loss of educational opportunity, and few competing alternatives, with the exception of other camps (and the phenomenon of “Jewish specialty camps” is making inroads into mitigating those opportunity costs, as well). One is not forgoing too many other opportunities by going to camp. Parents do not have to take time off of work, and the Jewish content and context is a bonus.
Accounting for opportunity cost may actually contribute to making camp such a success because parents may well have fewer arguments over camp because, unlike day school or supplementary school, the child’s perspective on the opportunity cost may be limited. Unlike supplementary school students, summer campers may not even know what they’re missing.
While research on summer camping is beginning to uncover the secrets to camp’s success, it may be missing a crucial part of the equation: the economics of summertime fun, in which the opportunity cost (or its absence) may mitigate the otherwise high price tag of four weeks of bug juice and havdalah by the lake.
Despite the cost, it might be the best deal in town.