Closed Campuses May Lead to Census Undercounts

Normally bustling with students, the main entrance to CUNY’s Baruch College at East 24th Street and Lexington Avenue was deserted weeks into the city’s coronavirus lockdown. (Photo by Andre Beganski)

By Anacaona Rodriguez Martinez

Just days before a census event scheduled by a group of Baruch College students to get out the count among their classmates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the City University of New York would have to move to distance learning to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Plans to take over the lobby of Baruch’s vertical campus on East 25th Street, and furnish it with laptops, tablets and desktops for the marathon fill-out-the-census event aimed at getting as many students as possible to fill out the census on one day, were suddenly scrapped.

Instead, classes moved online, the campus closed and efforts to educate students about, and sign them up for, the census stopped

Mark Roitburd, one event volunteer and a Baruch student,  is concerned that the coronavirus will depress the census count among college students. “This is extremely bad timing, since the census is being carried out in a time of international crisis,” he said.

Roitburd worries that some students will have trouble getting access to the internet. Others will have moved to family homes outside the city and will not be counted as part of the New York City census count even though that is their main residence.

Since 1950, college students have been asked to fill out the census at their “usual residence,” which for most college students is a college dormitory. About two-thirds of students in private colleges, and 40 percent of students in public colleges, live on campus.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic, including the exodus of many students from campuses, could have a profound impact on the census, depressing counts in areas with large numbers of college students.

“I think the concern now is that college students traditionally counted at the dorms they’re at on April 1,” won’t be counted, said Ahsia Badi, New York State’s Census Director at Emgage USA, who works on getting out the count for Muslim community members. And “colleges will see a decrease in response.”

College students living in dormitories are typically counted in one of three ways: University officials can file for all students, based on school data on the number living in “group quarters;” students can fill out the census themselves; alternatively, students can be interviewed face-to-face by a U.S. Census Bureau employee. According to the census bureau, about 55 percent of students are included in a “group quarters” count filed by universities

While such “group quarters” counts are unlikely to be impacted by campus closures, close to half of the country’s college students–4 million students—who would have filled out their own census forms or been interviewed by a census official—are now at risk of being undercounted.

Colleges could suffer severe consequences. States allocate funding for public spaces and infrastructure in university areas based on the census. Universities located outside urban areas could be at the greatest funding disadvantage as many counties and small college towns depend on community funding that also is based on the census count. Without students on campus, funding for the next ten years will be significantly lower than during other census cycles.

Although the census bureau has put out messages reminding students who usually live on campus to fill out the census separately from their parents, Badi says she’s not sure how much of that message is getting out to students.

Another issue would be the lack of enumerators going out this year to remind people to fill out the census. The census bureau announced that it would suspend “2020 Census field operations until more updates are available.” Badi says that enumerators are key to getting more people to fill out the census. “If we can spend the next month really focusing on the folks that should be able to fill out the census and hear the message, then we can just focus the enumerators towards the folks who weren’t able to fill out the census.” However, it’s unclear when that will be able to take place.

Without census efforts specifically targeting college students, university students will most definitely be undercounted because they are no longer in their dorms. Moreover, “college students might feel less incentivized to fill out the census,” because many are unaware of “what the census does for them,” explained Roidburd, the Baruch College census volunteer.