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Campus Closings Complicate Census Outreach

Census envelope
Matt Rourke
Shown is an envelope containing a 2020 census letter.

Today is Census Day, when many local governments, schools and civic organizations were planning to ramp up efforts to ensure everyone gets counted. This is to ensure their communities get their share of government funding and representation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated that, especially on college campuses. One of the hardest-to-count populations just got that much harder.

Illinois State University census logo
Credit Illinois State University
Illinois State University is turning to social media to ramp up student participation in the 2020 census.

Harriett Steinbach oversees census outreach at Illinois State University as assistant director of community engagement and service learning. April 1, otherwise known as Census Day, was supposed to be ISU's census kickoff.

“Had things gone according to plan, we’d be out on the Quad all day being really excited about the census and passing out snacks and having tablets where students could do the census on site and giving away census swag and all those kinds of things,” Steinbach beamed.

The campus is basically empty. The university has closed dorms and sent students home. They are finishing coursework online.

Steinbach said the university was already planning much of its census outreach through social media.

“It’s not a huge change for us in that we had digital outreach and marketing built into our plan, so it’s really just focusing on those digital aspects,” Steinbach said.

The Town of Normal has done its own census engagement to help make sure its college students are counted.

College students tend to be hard to count, which makes outreach especially important. Many students have not participated in a census and may be confused about where they should report residency. According to the census, your residence is where you live on April 1 and where you spend a majority of the year. Steinbach said that means your college residence, even this year when most students are home.

“That makes it even more confusing and so the Census Bureau has some great information, very clear, really treating COVID as sort of this anomaly,” Steinbach explained.

There are new wrinkles to the 2020 headcount that could make census takers' jobs easier, particularly on campuses. There's a new online form. Plus, for college students who live on campus in what the census describes as group quarters, they don't have to do anything.

Their college submits information for them using personal data they already have, unless a student opts out. At Illinois Wesleyan University, where students have to live on campus their first three years, 83% of the student body will automatically be counted.

IWU's Residence Life Director Kyle Griffith said that should streamline the process.

“(The Census) is helping because they know because group quarters are undercounted or historically have been, they want to make sure they are able to get that information more easily,” Griffith said.

Census takers were planning to go door-to-door in college towns starting next week to pick up those still not counted. Steinbach said the census has put that on hold because of the pandemic, but regardless of when they start canvassing, the students likely won't there.

“It’s just a tough situation to be in and there’s not a lot we can do about it,” Steinbach said. “It will likely result in not exactly an accurate a count for our community.”

Heartland Community College can't submit its own student data for the census because it doesn't offer student housing.

Heartland spokesperson Steve Fast said the school has also had to scale back outreach and focus on e-learning for the spring semester during the campus shutdown, but said it will continue using social media, student email, faculty, and a live video presentation to engage students.

Fast said once the school finishes its transition to online courses for its adult education programs which resumed on Tuesday, the school plans to bolster its census outreach.

“Once that hurdle is addressed, where will be other opportunities to communicate census information to these adult ed students,” Fast said. “This is something we did with in-person classes before spring break.”

The most recent data from the Census Bureau shows McLean County is reporting at 35% so far, better than the national average of 28%, but on the ISU campus where outreach was planned mostly for April, it's only 11%.

Census officials estimate each person not counted represents a loss of $17,000 in federal funding for a community over 10 years.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.