This story has been updated.
Spring break marks a different deadline on many college campuses this year: In addition to the halfway point in the semester, U.S. Census Bureau officials and partners see the middle of March as a crucial time to reach students who must mark their residence before they leave for the summer.
“We’re in full-blown educational efforts,” said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director at James Madison University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who in 2018 was appointed to the Virginia Complete Count Commission.
The commission aims to improve the participation and representation of Virginia residents in the decennial census; Ong Whaley and a team of her students at JMU are working on general, as well as student-specific, outreach. They are visiting classrooms, hosting parties for off-campus residents who fill out questionnaires and putting door hangers in dorm halls.
“That makes it more relevant,” Ong Whaley said. “And if we don’t make that case more broadly, it won’t matter how many social media posts we put up, or ads we take out, if people don’t feel it’s relevant to them.”
Getting a complete and accurate count of United States residents impacts voting districts, economic subsidies, school and research funding, infrastructure building and more.
“The census is the invisible hand of our democracy, and filling this out is going to impact the next 10 years,” Ong Whaley said.
College students who do not live with family are counted in two buckets, depending on their living situation: If they live in university-provided housing, the university takes the lead on compiling their information, which may happen through questionnaires distributed in dorms or via an electronic transfer of records. If they live in private off-campus housing, they must fill out the regular census form that describes themselves and others who live in their “household,” such as roommates.
Students who are studying abroad this semester will not fill out a form; international students living and attending college in the United States should be counted at the on- or off-campus residence where they live and sleep most of the time as of April 1. A citizenship question will not be included on the census, though the Census Bureau may ask people their citizen status on other forms.
Ong Whaley said she does not expect a recent federal memo to impact universities’ methods for collecting and sending the information of students who live in university-provided housing.
The 2020 census form “asks for information about the student’s sex, Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and race,” stated the original memo, issued on Jan. 14. “However, school officials may not disclose this information, without prior written consent from the student.”
Then, after universities questioned how to enact such a policy, a department official sent a follow-up memo saying schools are allowed to furnish such data if “such data is de-identified.”
Similarly, a 2018 bill by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, that makes student directory information opt-in should not hinder Virginia universities’ ability to share student records with the census — and in an email, Wilt noted that another bill, passed in the 2019 session, requires universities to share such information with appropriate state and federal agencies, as applicable, even if a student hasn’t opted in.
The last census, in 2010, found more than 2.5 million students living in dorms or on-campus fraternity or sorority houses; they made up the largest segment of what the Census Bureau refers to as “group quarters,” which also include prisons, jails and nursing homes, according to recent reporting from The Associated Press.
Gov. Ralph Northam has declared Feb. 21-28 to be a “Census Week of Action,” with outreach to college students occurring Tuesday. JMU said it is providing guidance to other universities in the state about how best to facilitate census participation, but officials at other universities had varying levels of knowledge about current policy or who, locally, was working with a complete count committee.
“I have no idea who handles this,” one university official said.
At risk is getting a full count of the students living in college-run housing.
Kathleen O’Connell, a Census official in the Charlottesville area, said the bureau is working with universities to manage outreach.
"Both UVa and JMU are coordinating outreach on their campuses and will be sending communications to both students and their families to let them know where and how they should be counted," she said.
Christopher Newport University is working with the Census Bureau to determine “how best to handle this,” according to spokesman Jim Hanchett.
“There is no firm plan yet,” he said. “Our No. 1 consideration will be the privacy and protection of our students.”
Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for Virginia Tech, said Virginia Tech will distribute census forms door-to-door using residence life staff members. The forms will then be collected and compiled by the university, but Owczarski said Tech hasn’t yet decided how to do that.
The school has approximately 10,200 students living in university-run on-campus facilities — including a number of freshmen put up in local hotels. Those hotels are considered campus residence halls, so those students “will be counted in the same manner that students living in all campus facilities would be counted,” Owczarski said.
Virginia Commonwealth University said a school official is a member of the Richmond Complete Count Committee and that student affairs staff members are working to get the word out about the census.
“The university will ensure that any information shared as part of the enumeration complies with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” spokesman Michael Porter said.
Sara Pennington, a program manager for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and a member of the Charlottesville-area Complete Count Committee, said earlier this month that a representative from the University of Virginia had not yet reached out to the committee.
The Charlottesville committee currently is working with local organizations to find community partners that will help reach historically under-counted populations — such as children and people who are homeless, undocumented immigrants or refugees — Pennington said.
Students aren’t necessarily hard to reach in the same ways as other under-represented populations, but changes in the census may shift officials’ ability to reach them. This is the first census where large amounts of phone and online responses are expected.
“That may shift the focus for students to self-complete more,” Pennington said.
Demographers at UVa’s Weldon Cooper Center Center for Public Service said they had so far simply seen census guidance that asked census takers to drop off paper questionnaires with a representative of the residence hall, who then is expected to take the forms door-to-door and have students fill them out.
That’s one way college students living in university-provided housing may be asked to fill out the census, though there are other processes that are less labor-intensive.
Qian Cai, director of Weldon Cooper’s Demographics Research Group, noted that universities that select such a process simply expect students to follow standard processes.
“This way, each college student is directly filling out the census form, like their counterparts living in off-campus apartments, as well as every household in America,” she said.
Towns and counties understandably worry about getting an accurate count of the people living in their locality, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant who specializes in the census.
“University and local officials need to sort out questions with area and regional census officials now in order to avoid any confusion when counting group quarters,” Lowenthal said.
“College students should be easy to count,” she said, “but the fact that this is the first time many will be part of the census on their own can create challenges.”