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College Towns Across US Consider Challenging 2020 Census Results 

Students walk to and from classes on the Indiana University campus, Oct. 14, 2021, in Bloomington, Indiana.

Officials in some college towns across the country plan to challenge the results of the 2020 census, claiming that vacant campuses emptied because of the COVID-19 pandemic cost them a fair count.

In its review of 75 metro areas that are home to the largest shares of residents ages 20-24, The Associated Press found that in some towns, the census count was significantly below population estimates. In others, the count exceeded estimates.

For example, in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University, the numbers were off by as much as 7%, according to AP. Indiana University, which has about 48,000 students, vacated its classrooms just as the census began. Bloomington officials believe their city’s census results were too low.

“It’s just not a credible number,” Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton told AP. “The simplest explanation is that the count was done after the university told students, ‘Don’t return to Bloomington and go back to your parents’ homes.’ I’m not blaming anybody. The university did the right thing to protect its students.”

But in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Huntsville, Texas, AP found that results surpassed local estimates by 6%. In Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, Mayor Walt Maddox told AP that last year’s census put the city just shy of 100,000 residents, an important threshold that decides whether cities receive certain funding streams. Maddox said properly counting off-campus students living in the city will make up the difference.

“In terms of economic development, the perception of being above 100,000 has a greater psychological impact in your recruiting and development,” Maddox told AP.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox talks about the off-campus student housing in the background that is seeing growth, Oct. 13, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox talks about the off-campus student housing in the background that is seeing growth, Oct. 13, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Funding, representation at stake

Much is on the line. Census data determines how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned, as well as billions of dollars in federal funding. Results last until the next census in 10 years.

For cities and towns built around universities, accurate census information often hinges on how well students are counted. School records for students living on campus may have been more easily aggregated than for those students living off campus, which likely contributed to the inaccurate headcount, according to the AP report.

Collecting information on this demographic presented challenges from the start. A U.S. Census Bureau press release in June 2020 said efforts were being made to solicit off-campus student data from college administrators. An earlier release asked college students to report their residency as “where they live and sleep most of the time.”

But this led to some confusion. As schools asked students to shelter in place and wait out the worsening pandemic, communities typically brimming with off-campus student life quieted. Students were back home, many unsure where to count their residency. In State College, Pennsylvania, AP reported that neighborhoods normally dominated by Penn State students had the lowest census response rates in the area.

Challenging the numbers

In a letter sent this month to the Census Bureau, Boston Mayor Kim Janey said she would challenge her city’s census results, attributing low response rates to fewer college students and foreign residents hesitant about citizenship questions, language barriers and the government.

Janey said a city survey earlier in the academic year counted 5,000 local students who were later not among the final tally. Another 500 inmates in Boston’s two correctional facilities were also not counted.

Despite their differences, Janey signaled her gratitude for the bureau’s work.

“The pandemic could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Decennial Census,” she wrote in the letter. “Our desire to have a more accurate population count for Boston does not diminish our appreciation for the valuable resources that the Census Bureau provides.”

The bureau’s Count Question Resolution Operation offers a chance for officials to challenge the census results, but it will only consider geographic issues and coverage concerns, such as a missed apartment building or counts made using incorrect boundaries. Communities can begin filing their cases in January.

Few complaints submitted after the 2010 census — the last time all U.S. residents were counted — led to a correction, according to the bureau’s website.

Some information for this report comes from AP.