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Census 2020: Historically Underrepresented: College Students?

At a recent event in Providence, RI held to train community partners and activists in getting out the count in underrepresented communities for the 2020 census, a strong sense of unity pervaded the room. Upstanding citizens from all over Rhode Island gathered to identify and dispel common rumors and to share outreach strategy for the all-important decennial count. The attendees of the event were tasked with the massive job of overcoming the greatest obstacle to full census participation: underrepresented Americans’ entrenched distrust of the current administration–which is perfectly warranted. As one of two representatives of an institution of higher education–especially an elite, wealthy, predominantly white institution–I can imagine there was some confusion concerning my presence. Most representatives came from communities and organizations that benefit some of Rhode Island’s most marginalized populations: homeless people, undocumented immigrants, and low-income people. However, as all of us stakeholders learned, college students belong to the group of historically undercounted citizens in the census. As long as students across the country live off-campus in the state in which they attend college, they must be counted in that state. But in past censuses, they haven’t been. This must change: college students must participate in the census in order to receive the political representation that they deserve, but also to acknowledge the economic burden that they place on local governments by using resources nearly year-round.

 The stakes for the census are quite high: census numbers will determine the amount of federal funding a community will receive for the next 10 years, as well as the number of House seats each state receives. Full participation in the 2020 census is especially crucial in Rhode Island, as in this cycle, the state is at risk of losing one of its two House seats. The last time the state only had one seat in the House was 1789. The difference between having one voice representing Rhode Island in Washington and two is a mere 157 people counted in the upcoming census, as calculated three years ago. Representation, or lack thereof, is a hot topic in discussions around the census, especially with its recent use as a political weapon against undocumented immigrants. But often forgotten is the importance of funding allocation determined by the census. In total, the government distributes $675 billion in federal funding to vital programs like Head Start, SNAP, Medicare, and Pell Grants. When college students neglect to fill out the census form, they do the state in which they reside a disservice.

Although the process of completing the census is simple, and it is safe and beneficial for all to complete, the feelings of those who fear the census are extremely valid. Fortunately, the the Trump administration’s tireless efforts to deter undocumented immigrants from participating in the census by adding a citizenship question to this year’s form have been blocked by the Supreme Court. However, many Americans will choose not to fill out the census because of their distrust of the government. Fear-mongering is a powerful tool and the damages of this type of manipulation are hard to reverse. Many college students have intersecting identities that make them especially hard to count, such as first-generation students, low-income students, LGBTQ+ students, undocumented students, and students of color. But why are college students as a whole difficult to count? 

While fear may be an important factor in deciding not to complete the census for students holding certain marginalized identities, apathy or lack of knowledge contributes to other students’ lack of participation. For almost all college students, this will be the first time they are in charge of participating in the census. Most college students were around 10 years old when the last census occured in 2010 and were likely counted within their family unit. Evan Curtis, the co-chair of the Utah Complete Count Committee, says, “Young college students may be going off on their own for the first time, and when they see a postcard or a census worker and are asked to take the census, they may not understand that they’re supposed to take it where they’re living.” An important distinction to make is that students living in university-recognized, on-campus housing do not have to fill out a census form because of the Census Group Quarters Enumeration operation, meaning that the Bureau works directly with colleges to receive their official counts. When a student living off-campus receives a notice in the mail at their current address about the census, most will simply ignore it because they assume, as seasonal renters of an apartment and temporary residents of a state, it does not pertain to them. 

Research done by the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is also an emotional aspect tied to where a college student is counted: many students want to feel connected to their families at home, and parents want to feel connected to their college-age children. Parents often count their children as living at home, even if they reside in college nine months out of the year or more, as a way of prolonging their family unit. There is also growing fear surrounding the census on college campuses due to misinformation floating around social media. Some students are even calling for boycotts of the 2020 census because of the proposed citizenship question. Additionally, students who identify as transgender, non-binary or as another gender minority may feel unrepresented by the census as it only includes two options for the gender question. Census officials advise students to skip the question if it makes them uncomfortable. Kell Crowley, a student at Georgetown University conducting research on the census, says, “Well-intentioned groups think that we should boycott the census because we shouldn’t be using it for partisan processes… Mostly I encountered apathy rather than students having direct negative opinions of it.” While there has been little research done on why students either intentionally or unintentionally avoid the census, Pew Research’s recent findings that the 18-29 year old bloc is the least likely to say they will participate in the census (34% say they are likely to not participate) seem to point to negative opinions of the census. All of these factors–fear, lack of knowledge, misinformation, issues with the census itself–snowball into a massive barrier to full participation.

With college students living in a community for nine months out of a year, many towns cannot afford to risk an undercount of students. The county which includes the University of Maryland, College Park–now an official partner of the 2020 census–experienced a severe undercount in the 2010 census, with a response rate of only 49% of the tract that encompasses UMD. Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, a faculty member and member of College Park’s complete count committee, warns, “Inaccurate counts may lead to underserved communities, which may lead to inadequacies in schools, infrastructure and potential redistricting.” Closer to home, the tract which includes University of Rhode Island in Kingston had a similarly low response rate of 39.6% in the 2010 census, according to the Census Bureau’s official hard-to-count map. Given that college students make up approximately 14% of Providence’s population, an undercount could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in federal funding. Based on 2010 census data, the state of Rhode Island was awarded more than $2400 per capita. The agency receiving the highest proportion of federal funding, approximately $1600 per capita, was Health and Human Services–a service which college students highly depend on. Other programs, such the Highway Trust Fund, TANF, Food Safety and Inspection Service, child nutrition programs, emergency firefighting, adult education and literacy programs, and energy conservation programs will be similarly impacted by an undercount of college students. Rhode Island isn’t the only state that is endangered: any state in which a significant number of college students reside faces issues of potential undercounting. On a national level, the data compiled using census numbers reported by college students is also important from an educational research perspective. When I asked Debborah Smith, a partnership specialist at the Census Bureau, why it is important for college students to participate, she pointed me to a database full of information relating to educational achievement using data from the census or the American Community Survey (ACS). She said none of this would be accurate or available without student response. 

On a daily basis, whether it be taking public transportation, receiving care for a health emergency, or doing research for a class, we depend on the results of the decennial census. The programs that don’t directly impact us rely on our support, too. For many students, it is hard to imagine the next 10 years. Most students will be living in a different town, a different state, or even a different country. But where we are on April 1 will determine the funding in these communities until 2030: we must be counted. 

Photo: Image via Wikimedia Commons (Jim Irwin)