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Coronavirus Pandemic Makes It Harder To Get College Students Counted In Census

The center of SIUE's campus without any students on March 30. The university asked all students move out of the dorms on March 21.
File Photo / Eric Schmid
St Louis Public Radio
The center of SIUE's campus without any students on March 30. The university asked all students move out of the dorms on March 21.

EDWARDSVILLE — College students should respond to the 2020 census as if they were still living on campus or in their off-campus apartment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The coronavirus outbreak has added confusion to this question because most college students are now back at home, finishing their semesters online. 

The decennial headcount tracks where people in the U.S. live and sleep most of the time. 

“College students should continue to be counted where they usually eat, sleep and live,” said Alex Rankin, interim director of health policy for the Missouri Foundation for Health. “Normally if that’s on a college campus, they should be counted as part of a college campus.”

Most of the universities in the St. Louis region have transitioned to online courses for a portion or the entirety of the semester. 

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is among them, after it moved its courses online and asked the nearly 11,500 on-campus residents to move out of their housing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This sudden change for students could jeopardize census counts in smaller college towns, like Edwardsville, which has around 25,000 residents. City officials were relying on students to respond to the census themselves before the coronavirus outbreak impacted the Metro East.

“Younger college students are at that age where they still may be relying on parents or family members to help with certain things,” Edwardsville city planner Emily Fultz said in February. “We as a community are really relying on them to fill out their forms and be counted in Edwardsville.”

In Illinois, cities receive around $164 per person per year from the state based on their official population as counted by the census. 

SIUE was originally planning to distribute forms to on-campus residences for students to complete on their own and return to campus officials. The university has around 13,000 total students both on and off campus.

University officials did not provide an updated census plan after classes were moved online.

Less civically engaged

Responding to the census was already a low priority for students at SIUE before the coronavirus outbreak, said Allison McDonald, a senior mass communications student.

“Not many people think about the census — especially my generation — because we didn’t do it 10 years ago,” she said. “It’s new to us.”  

This semester, McDonald interned for Illinois Public Interest Research Group, encouraging students to commit to responding to the census.

“It’s not really something I thought of either until I started my internship,” she added.

Civic engagement among college students is already low, and most only think of voting, said sophomore sociology student Alex Aultman.

“They don’t really view the census as a form of civic engagement,” they said. “It’s like we’re all trying to navigate adulthood and independence. It feels like doing the census is something for adults.”

And the transition to online classes for the remainder of the semester will likely mean fewer students will respond to the census, McDonald said.

“Now a lot of [students] are at home again, they just assume, ‘My mom will count me on the census,’” she said. “They don’t realize they’re going to still have to do it themselves.”

And the university has sent minimal messages about the census and mixed signals about whether students need to count themselves or not, Aultman added.

“I heard that if you live on campus in the dorms, they will count you themselves,” they said. “But I haven’t been able to confirm that.”

Why should students respond as if they’re still on campus?

The results of the census determine how billions of dollars in federal and state funding is distributed to cities for the next 10 years. Funding tied to the census often makes up the largest share of a city’s revenue in Illinois. 

Students are an important part of a college town’s census count for that reason, said Natalie Furlett, Illinois director for Campus Compact, a nonprofit that works to engage college students on civic issues. 

“Right now, there’s not a lot of people” on campus, she said. “But on a normal day, there usually are thousands of students that are taking advantage of the resources available in the community.”

Continuing to count students as if they were on campus will help cities like Edwardsville provide for them when they eventually return, Furlett said.

“For college communities in particular, if you’re not counted where you are when you're in school, then that community is going to lose out on resources it needs to help support you through your schooling,” she said. “For college students, census data is used to determine Pell Grants and direct loans.”

She stressed that the census takes account of where the U.S. population normally is on April 1. 

“Where we are with COVID-19, this is not a normal day. This isn’t a normal situation,” she said. “Many of us are displaced from where we would be normally. This is going to skew our census numbers if we don’t get this right.”

The U.S. census has extended the self-response window to mid-August. You can respond to the census here: www.my2020census.gov 

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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