Millions of students have emptied out of college towns across the country as a result of the coronavirus — making an already slippery population harder to count in this year’s census and potentially depriving those communities of resources down the line.

That shift could turn bustling college communities into ghost towns in federal data used to determine political representation, the allocation of government funds and more. The Census Bureau’s plans to count those students have gone out the window, as the agency works out how to count nearly 20 million college students who have largely gone home.

College officials, too, are coming to grips with counting their students while they continue the semester remotely. This census “will greatly impact the communities in which colleges and universities are situated,” said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director for James Madison University’s Center for Civic Engagement.

“This just kind of raises the stakes for making sure we have healthcare infrastructure, financial resources and economic resilience from a crisis,” she said.

Students who lived in dorms will be easier to count, Whaley said, as universities will have a firm address for them. The millions who live off campus will be a different story. Many may have moved back to a parent’s house and if they respond there, the Census Bureau may have no evidence they lived at college at all.

Department of Education data pegs the college student population at about 19 million nationwide. Whaley, a member of Virginia’s complete count commission, said missing college students or counting them at their parents’ houses could hurt local businesses, community visibility in federal data and representation at all levels of government.

College student counting has troubled the census in the past. Census Bureau research shows students tend to get counted twice — once at their campuses and again at a family home. That has contributed to overcounts of college-age residents, such as a 2% overcount of 15- to 19-year-olds in 2010.

Efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic have scrambled plans to count college students, though. The Census Bureau has asked colleges to count students who lived in dormitories through administrative records. It has also delayed the early door-knocking period, which was meant to count college students living off campus, from April to May. In the meantime, the agency has published a video and other explainers asking college students to respond using their college address rather than a family home.

But some lawmakers said the agency needs to do more. In a letter Monday to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation said it will be ”exceptionally difficult” to get students to respond correctly to the census. 

“We are deeply concerned that in the current circumstances, continuing to count students residing in institutions by collecting individual student surveys will result in a drastic undercount for Massachusetts,” their letter said.

Provisions in the stimulus bill House Democrats introduced Monday would have given the Census Bureau an exemption to federal student privacy law to collect data, helping count college students in dormitories. Some institutions balked at that, saying it creates an ethical concern and they’ve already worked with the bureau to count students.

The Census Bureau and the Department of Education developed a two-phase process to allow institutions to share student data without violating their privacy. First, universities would share on-campus students’ names, date of birth and other details. Then institutions would aggregate race, ethnicity and other data to send to the Census Bureau anonymously. 

Going beyond that process is a concern for universities trying to protect their students, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. While the law prohibits disclosure outside the Census Bureau, she said institutions still worry.

“There is a concern that if there is an exemption institutions would be complicit in what would be regarded ordinarily as unethical,” she said. “The (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is in place for a reason and so this exception would put those who are already the most vulnerable at risk.”

On top of that, Whaley said the provision may not alleviate the issue if it passed into law. Even if the exemption were extended to include students who live off campus, Whaley said, universities may only have a family home address.

“I don’t see how it really helps,” Whaley said. “It doesn’t address the bigger challenge, which is students who live off campus.”


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