BLOOMINGTON – Some college towns plan to challenge the results of the 2020 census, claiming they were shortchanged because the pandemic forced students to leave campuses and complaining that the undercount could cost them federal money and prestige.
College communities such as Bloomington, Indiana; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and State College, Pennsylvania, are exploring their options for contesting the population counts, which they say do not accurately reflect how many people live there.
When the pandemic struck the U.S. around spring break of 2020, it set off an exodus in college towns as classrooms went virtual almost overnight. The sudden departure of tens of thousands of students made it difficult to count them in the census, which began at almost the same time.
An Associated Press review of 75 metro areas with the largest share of residents between 20 and 24 showed that the census results fell well below population estimates in some cases but also exceeded them significantly in others.
Officials in college towns are not sure why there was such variation, and they are reviewing whether it was due to the timing of spring breaks, outreach efforts, or the percentage of students living on campus versus off. Another variable is whether schools cooperated when the Census Bureau asked for records on off-campus students. Only about half of schools did so since many had privacy concerns or did not have the requested information.
The AP review showed that the population counts were below estimates by about 5% to 7% in Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Greenville, North Carolina; and Bloomington, Indiana, metro areas, which are home to Central Michigan University, East Carolina University, and Indiana University, respectively.
The 2020 census put the city of Bloomington at 79,168 residents, a decline from about 80,405 in 2010. City officials expected a 2020 count of 85,000 to 90,000 residents. The nation’s headcount was just beginning in March 2020 when schools including Indiana University told students not to return to campus in response to the spread of the coronavirus. Most of the university’s 48,000 students were on spring break.
“It’s just not a credible number,” Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said. “The simplest explanation is that the count was done after the university told students, ‘Don’t return to Bloomington and go back to your parents’ homes.′ I’m not blaming anybody. The university did the right thing to protect its students.”
Cities, states, and tribal nations can start contesting their numbers in January through the bureau’s Count Question Resolution program, but it looks only at number-crunching errors, such as an overlooked housing unit or incorrect boundaries. The program only revises figures used for population estimates over the next decade that help determine federal funding. The Census Bureau won’t revise the numbers used for determining how many congressional seats each state gets nor the redistricting data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s worth a try,” said Mayor Hamilton.