Watchdog Group Warns of Risks to 2020 Census Accurately Counting Off-Campus College Students

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has called for the immediate attention of the U.S. Census Bureau over concerns of not accurately accounting for university students living off campus for the 2020 census, putting institutions of higher education at risk of losing long-term federal funding for a number of resources and student programs.

The issue is exacerbated by the fact that 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.

While the review did not identify any significant problems with getting an accurate count of college students living on campus, OIG highlighted reporting concerns with the off-campus cohort, placing the usability of collected data at risk.

OIG specifically raised concerns it has over the population count citing fewer reported responses than expected of off-campus housing units being received through Aug. 4, 2020, indicating an undercounting at college and university towns.

Significant blame can be placed on the novel coronavirus, which led to the cancelation of the Census Bureau’s Nonresponse Followup Operation (NRFU). The operation had planned to be conducted from April 9 to July 24, however by that time, many students had left their college campuses.

There are actions the bureau can take to combat the logistical problems imposed by the pandemic and while it has requested roster data from college and university administrators on off-campus students to help enumerate them, OIG has concerns over the fact that the bureau has not yet outlined how it intends to assess and verify the newly requested data. 

“The Bureau’s efforts to collect data on off-campus students from college and university administrators will not mitigate the risk of an inaccurate count, because the Bureau does not have a final plan in place to use these off-campus student data,” the letter from OIG read. “Furthermore, any finalized plans will need to consider the completeness and usability of off-campus student data.”

OIG also warned that schools could lose funding should incomplete data be collected, which would also have significant consequences for college and university towns that receive federal funding that is distributed based on population.

The letter was made publicly available and did not request a response from the Census Bureau.


Publication Date: 9/3/2020

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