Some college towns are planning to challenge the 2020 census results, claiming they have been wronged because the pandemic has forced students to leave campuses and complaining that undercoverage could cost them money and prestige federal.
University communities such as Bloomington, Indiana; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and State College in Pennsylvania are exploring their options to challenge population numbers, which they say do not accurately reflect the number of people who live there.
When the pandemic hit the United States around spring break of 2020, it sparked an exodus in college towns as classrooms went virtual almost overnight. The sudden departure of tens of thousands of students made it difficult to count them in the census, which started almost at the same time.
Because universities were able to provide the Census Bureau with records for students living in dormitories and other accommodation on campus, off-campus students “were at risk of being missed,” said Dudley Poston, professor of sociology. at Texas A&M University.
An Associated Press review of 75 metropolitan areas with the highest proportion of people between the ages of 20 and 24 found that census results were much lower than population estimates in some cases, but also significantly exceeded them. significant in others.
University town officials are unsure why there has been such a variation, and they are examining whether it was due to spring break timing, outreach efforts, or the percentage of students living on campus compared to the outside. Another variable is whether the schools cooperated when the Census Bureau requested records on off-campus students. Only about half of the schools did so because many had privacy issues or did not have the information requested.
“You can go crazy thinking about the variations,” said Douglas Shontz, spokesperson for Borough of State College, home of Penn State University, where officials believe the census missed 4,000 to 5,800 residents.
The AP review showed that the population counts were lower than estimates of about 5% to 7% in Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Greenville, North Carolina; and Bloomington, Indiana, metropolitan areas, which are home to Central Michigan University, East Carolina University, and Indiana University, respectively.
The 2020 census put the town of Bloomington at 79,168, down from around 80,405 in 2010. City officials expected a tally of 85,000 to 90,000 in 2020. The workforce across the country was just starting in March 2020 when schools, including Indiana University, told students not to return to campus in response to the spread of the coronavirus. Most of the university’s 48,000 students were on spring break.
“It’s just not a credible number,” Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said. “The simplest explanation is that the tally was done after the university told the students, ‘Don’t go back to Bloomington and go back to your parents. I don’t blame anyone. The university has done what it takes to protect its students.
Counting college students has always been a difficult task, even before the pandemic. The Census Bureau’s rule of thumb was that students should be counted at their college address, even if the coronavirus temporarily sent them elsewhere as of April 1 which provides a benchmark for the census.
At State College, home to Penn State’s 39,000 students, the office’s message before the pandemic was that people should be counted “where they sleep most of the time,” which was confusing for students after they returned home. . As a result, student-dominated neighborhoods had the lowest census response rates in the borough, State College Ward Director Tom Fountaine said in a note to city officials.
In Greenville, North Carolina, home to East Carolina University’s 29,000 students, the census figure has fallen more than 6% below estimates, and Mayor PJ Connelly fears this could affect the ability to the city to obtain funding for its bus system and social housing. Connelly plans to challenge his town’s 87,521 population count.
“We believe there were some miscalculations based on the students,” Connelly said.
Some metropolitan areas such as Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Huntsville, Texas had census figures 6% higher than their estimates, according to the AP review. The cities are home to the University of Alabama and Sam Houston State University, respectively.
Despite this, Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox believes thousands of off-campus students have been overlooked, and the city plans to challenge the numbers. The 2020 tally puts the city at 400 residents with less than 100,000 residents, which could cost it access to some federal funding that is only available for cities of 100,000 or more.
“In terms of economic development, the perception of being above 100,000 has a greater psychological impact on your recruitment and development,” Maddox said.
Auburn, Alabama, home to Auburn University, had census counts far above estimates, but city officials believe the high number was just a correction from an undercoverage in 2010 city spokesman David Dorton said.
Cities, states, and tribal nations can start challenging their numbers in January through the office’s Count Question Resolution program, but it only examines miscalculations, such as neglected housing or incorrect boundaries. The program only revises numbers used for population estimates over the next decade that help determine federal funding. The Census Bureau will not revise the numbers used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets, nor the redistribution data used to draw congressional and legislative districts.
“As we anticipate more cases due to the many challenges faced by the 2020 census, the scope will be limited and data products will be limited,” Matthew Frates, head of the Census Bureau, told Texas Demographers and Economists at the time. of a presentation. last summer.
There have been victories in the past, such as the city of Houston’s efforts to increase its population from 2.09 million to 2.1 million after the 2010 census. The change triggered the ‘addition of two seats on the municipal council.
“It will be an uphill battle, but it’s worth a try,” Shontz told State College.
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