College Student Population Counts for 2020 Census Imperiled by Onset of Coronavirus

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

There was some optimism at the start of the year that the U.S. Census Bureau would get a better count of college-aged students — many of whom undergo a transient period of life — due to the availability of new digital reporting options for the 2020 census. Then came COVID-19.

With students vacating campuses in the middle of the census data collection period, institutions of higher education will struggle to get an accurate count on their campus-based population, putting them at risk of losing federal funding for a number of resources and student programs, and entrenching them in further economic peril for long-term funding allocations.

While most colleges’ housing administrative offices take care of population counts for on-campus students, those who live off campus are responsible for completing their own census forms.

“The real challenge is with the students living off campus,” said Linda Jacobsen, vice president of U.S. programs at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a private nonprofit organization that analyzes demographic data. “Students who live in apartments, or houses, or whatever received their census information packets in the mail just like other people who live in individual housing units, or in apartments, or houses.”

For the 2010 census, it was a challenge to get this cohort of young adults to check their mailboxes, and while a new online filing option was thought to help ease reporting barriers for 2020, the pandemic has completely soured that rosey prospect. Students who were already difficult to account for in the census became even more mobile, as colleges and universities abruptly shut down in a matter of weeks — or in some cases, days.

“Many students were actually away on spring break when these materials were delivered to their off-campus addresses, and then in a number of cases, the colleges extended spring break while they tried to figure out what to do about the pandemic,” Jacobsen said. “[Colleges] then ultimately decided to shut down and move to all online instruction. So, many of those students who were away never returned.”

Deciding exactly where a student was living amid the uprooting caused by the pandemic then became even more arduous, with some parents then thinking their children who moved home during the pandemic should be included as a part of their household, as opposed to their college address.

“Parents then erroneously included their students, even when their usual address should have been away at an institution,” Jacobsen said.

This undercounting of students on campus is particularly detrimental for institutions that rely on a geographically diverse cohort when it comes to their funding. After the completion of the census, programs have their funding levels set for the next decade. And with a number of major higher education programs relying on census results — including Pell Grants, aid for land-grant and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as federal grants for vocational training in community colleges and technical centers — an inaccurate count could be catastrophic for the long-term operations of these programs.

Getting an accurate population count is needed to direct federal funds, Jacobsen said. But issues such as undercounting — or in some cases double counting — college students “has been exacerbated and made much more critical” due to a recent decision from U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham to shorten the data collection period for the 2020 census by an entire month. 

Following the announcement, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote to  congressional leadership, urging them to prohibit the change.

While Congress continues to debate further federal aid in response to COVID-19, Jayapal has called for any finalized package to include a provision that would extend a deadline for the ongoing data collection of the 2020 census. 

“Rushing census operations without an extension means that some populations will remain uncounted or will not be counted accurately, impacting all of our districts and communities,” reads the letter, which was co-signed by 88 members. “Extending the statutory deadline will allow the Census Bureau to continue household counting operations through October 31, complete special counting operations thoroughly, and review, process and tabulate the data in accordance with the Bureau’s own quality standards.”

States are already facing steep budgeting challenges for higher education, with plans for fall enrollment still in flux. But the pandemic could exponentially exacerbate those shortfalls.

If populations are undercounted and states receive less funding as a result, Jacobsen said the impact could trickle down to funding for public universities, which could particularly harm areas where higher education institutions play a major role in the local economy. 

“College students make up a significant proportion of the population in those college towns, and if they are significantly undercut, then those local communities are not going to get the funding that they need to provide the infrastructure and services that are also really critical for the universities and colleges,” Jacobsen said.

The accuracy of the census has long-term ramifications for all sectors of the economy and could also create issues for student housing if states and localities do not have an accurate count on how much housing future populations require.

Four former census bureau directors issued a joint statement on the importance of continuing the data collection operations running through October 30 to ensure an accurate account of the 2020 field operation.

“The Census Bureau will do everything it can to be transparent and provide quality measures,” Jacobsen said. “But I think that this is so unprecedented that policymakers may demand an independent evaluation and assessment.”


Publication Date: 8/12/2020

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