Colleges fret over accuracy of virus-interrupted census count

FAYETTEVILLE -- Experts fear a serious undercount in college and university towns in the 2020 U.S. Census because covid-19 sent students scurrying home just as the decennial survey started in March, according to a panel hosted by the National League of Cities.

"There is no silver bullet here" to solve this problem, said panelist Denice Ross, chairwoman of the census quality task force for the nonprofit National Conference on Citizenship.

The panel members participated in a webinar Thursday about covid-19's effects on the U.S. Census. In particular, the panelists addressed the pandemic's disruption of the census count in cities with colleges and universities. The League of Cities is a nonprofit group and forum for municipal issues. It claims 2,472 cities across the United States as members.

The U.S. Census, a count of the population throughout all areas of the United States, is mandated every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution. The numbers gathered determine issues ranging from representation in Congress to the distribution of federal taxpayer money for community grants and health care.

The Census Bureau had no immediate response on Friday, a spokesman for the bureau confirmed.

Getting a full and accurate count was a major priority for city and county governments in Northwest Arkansas, a focus of many city councils and business groups such as all the region's chambers of commerce. The growing region needs a complete count to fully benefit from its rapid growth, community leaders have said.

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Fayetteville saw the covid outbreak as a major challenge for the census from the beginning and cooperated closely with the University of Arkansas to address the problem, city spokeswoman Linda DeBerry said Thursday. University spokesman John Thomas concurred.

The university used every resource at its command -- emails, text messages, social media, cooperation with the student government -- to reach as many students as possible and tell them to list Fayetteville as their residence even if they were forced to go home because of covid, Thomas said.

"We cast a pretty wide net," he said. Still, there is no way to know how well or poorly the effort did until the census is complied and the Census Bureau starts reporting detailed numbers, he said.

"Most of these students weren't old enough to participate in the 2010 Census," Thomas said. "So the fact this was the first census for them meant we also had to educate students on how to respond."

College students are "notoriously hard to count" even in the best of circumstances, panelists said. A university's records give a pretty good picture of who and how many people live -- or would have lived -- on campus. Counting students living off-campus is the much bigger problem, panelists said.

For instance, the census self-response rate is the percentage of households in which someone responded to the census on the internet or by mail without being checked by a census taker. Clear gaps can be seen in response rates between census tracts near colleges and universities and those without, panelists said. The gaps are often as wide as 8 percentage points, said panelist Susan Strate, a senior program manager for the population estimates program for the University of Massachusetts.

Compounding the problem, Strate and other panelists said, is how college students tend to live in small groups. One person in an apartment responding to the census on the internet carries no guarantee the three or four other nonfamily members who are living there or would have lived there in a normal year are counted.

Another factor is the Census Bureau won't accept self-reporting from a computer whose Internet Protocol Address -- an IP address -- shows it is outside the United States, Strate said. Therefore, international students who went home could not self-report online.

All members of the league's panel praised the Census Bureau's efforts in trying to cope with the once-in-a-century health emergency and their willingness to share information.

"The Census Bureau has been more transparent than it has ever been and more transparent than any federal agency has ever been," Ross said. "It's just not enough."

The flexibility the bureau showed in the crisis, such as moving deadlines back for people to self-respond, carried a cost, though, said Mayor Steve Patterson of Athens, Ohio, the third member of the three-member panel. Patterson is chairman of the league's University Communities Council. His city is home to the University of Ohio.

"There were moving goalposts all over the place," Patterson said. As necessary as that was, it created uncertainty. "I think that constantly moving deadline was confusing to people," he said.

There is an provision in federal law allowing a city or other public entity to, in essence, re-do its census count but it is prohibitively expensive, Ross said.

"It really isn't the panacea it appears to be at first glance," she said. The process isn't even allowed to begin until two years after the census, she said, and has had uneven results in the few times it has been tried.

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“Year in review” summary the 2020 U.S. Census


Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug