April 2020

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In a normal census year, collecting information on every college student is important and complex. With a public health crisis impacting every aspect of life, the census has become even more complicated. But ensuring that college students are fully counted remains a priority.

“It’s the mission of almost every college to train future citizens,” said Adrienne Falcón, higher education coordinator for the Minnesota Census 2020 and an associate professor at Metropolitan State University. “This is about doing just that — training and educating current and future citizens. This work around the census is not only fulfilling our national obligation and our institutional responsibility; it really gets to the core mission of higher education.”

Work to ensure there isn’t an undercount of college students has been underway, including through a statewide committee. Efforts include webinars to engage college staff about the importance of the census, colleges holding informational events for students and even a student social media campaign around why the census matters.

Colleges have a key role in reporting information for the students who live on campus — or would have been on campus, before COVID-19 hit. They also can help encourage students who live off-campus to ensure they’re counted. At Macalester College, work to ensure every student is counted started more than a year ago, according to Derek Johnson, civic leadership and outreach coordinator.

“Census participation directly relates to civic engagement, but we know that not all students are motivated to do what the government asks them to do,” Johnson said. “We created a Complete Count Committee and are collaborating with campus and community partners to get the census on the radar of students. . . . We’re lucky here at Mac to have very engaged students and in many cases students are leading the way on this. We know anything without the ownership and voice of students isn’t going to go very far.” 

A complete count of college students is important given how the number of residents in a state gets used in different ways. There’s use in research, for example, which can motivate students who will rely on it as a tool, Johnson noted. And there are impacts tied to policy. “Census numbers are used to draw districts,” Falcón said. "And Minnesota is at a high risk of losing a congressional district —there is a potential political loss if college students don’t participate. There also is a potential fiscal loss; an estimated $2,800 per person per year gets allocated through the census. Over 10 years that is about $28,000.” And as both Falcón and Johnson noted, the census results also impact federal Pell Grants, which triggers student concerns.

COVID-19 impacts

COVID-19 has shifted and complicated the census topic on almost every campus. The questions about who gets counted, and where and how they get counted are compounded by this crisis. But as shared by the Census Bureau:

  1. College students living away from home while at school will be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If a student was living on-campus prior to the COVID-19 response, they will be included in the colleges’ group reporting.
     
  2. If a student was living off-campus, the Census Bureau requests that they use their at-school off-campus address even if they have returned to a permanent residence due to COVID-19.
     
  3. Students who have returned from study away/study abroad by April 1 as well as those who did not go abroad due to COVID-19 should be counted at the address where they reside on April 1.
     
  4. If college students are counted at home and on campus, that is ok because there is a process to deduplicate the results within the Census bureau so families do not need to worry about what they may have done with their forms.

Simply put, students are asked to fill out the census as if the COVID-19 response didn’t occur and the students are still living in their college housing. Students or families with questions can visit MN 2020 Census college student web page.

 
 
By Tom Lancaster