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Coronavirus and the 2020 Census: Where Should College Students Be Counted?

UPDATE: 2020 Census operations are changing in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau announced on June 18, 2020, that it is reaching out to colleges and universities with significant off-campus student populations to help ensure they are counted in the right place in the 2020 Census. College and university presidents have been asked to provide roster and basic demographic information already provided to the university for off-campus students. This information allows the Census Bureau to count the students where they would have been staying on April 1, 2020, even if they went home early due to a school closure or shift to distance learning. It can also be used to remove duplicate responses to the census or to count students (if there is no other record of the same individuals in another location). Census Bureau staff began calling school officials on June 16.

Just as the 2020 Census is getting underway, many colleges and universities across the country are closing their campuses and moving classes online in response to concerns about the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

Where should college students be counted in the 2020 Census? Census Bureau officials say students living away from home should be counted at their on-campus or off-campus college address, even if coronavirus has temporarily sent them to stay with their parents or elsewhere.

Most of the students moving out of their on-campus dorms and residence halls won’t return until after Census Day, which is April 1, 2020. While some students living off-campus may choose not to leave, many are returning to their prior residence (such as a family home) during these campus closures.

According to the Census Bureau’s Official Residence Criteria for the 2020 Census, college students will be counted at their “usual residence” on April 1, 2020 or where they live and sleep “most of the time.”

This means that college students will be counted at their college address (either on- or off-campus), even if they are staying at their parents’ or guardians’ home on Census Day while on break, vacation, or due to COVID-19 closures. An accurate count of students—temporarily displaced due to the pandemic—is critical for towns and cities that are home to large numbers of college students. Student populations factor into disaster planning and emergency response, public health analysis and planning, infrastructure planning, government funding allocations, and many more policy and program decisions.

How Do Colleges Count Students Living On-Campus?

Every college or university is responsible for providing the Census Bureau with a total count of students living in university-run housing, which may include fraternities and sororities.

Many schools transmit this information electronically using their housing administrative records. Some, however, opt to distribute Individual Census Questionnaires to students, who complete them and return them to the school, which passes the completed forms to a Census Bureau enumerator. With many campuses closed due to COVID-19, the Census Bureau will be reaching out to those schools and inviting them to switch to the electronic option.

Either way, it is the responsibility of the college or university to gather the necessary information and provide it to the Census Bureau. Students living in on-campus or in university-run housing should not complete the census online or by telephone.

If a student living on-campus or in university-run housing is unsure about what to do regarding the 2020 Census, they should contact their college’s housing administration office or the Census Bureau.

Students Living Off-Campus Should Be Counted at Their Off-Campus Address

Students who live in off-campus housing with or without roommates should be counted as if they were still living there on April 1, even though they may have returned “home” at the urging of the school or public health authorities. As with students living on-campus, students living off-campus should not be included on their parents’ or guardians’ census form.

Students opting to leave their college-area residence to return home will likely not be there to receive the census materials that are being mailed to them by the Census Bureau. In this situation, students should use the address of their college-area residence and follow the Census Bureau instructions for Responding to the 2020 Census without a Census ID number.

Students who live with others in off-campus residences should coordinate with their roommates to ensure that only one questionnaire is completed for their household. Whoever completes the census questionnaire for the household should list all roommates, including non-students, who live and sleep at that address most of the time.

College students living outside of the United States on Census Day due to study abroad or other programs are not counted in the census. College students who are foreign citizens living and attending college in the United States should be counted at their on- or off-campus address in the same way as their U.S. counterparts.

To help ensure an accurate count, the Census Bureau is asking colleges and universities to contact their students and remind them to respond to the 2020 Census.

How Are Census Residency Rules for COVID-19 Different From Other Natural Disasters?

Some disasters—such as the wildfires in Paradise, California or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—destroy homes. In these types of disasters, returning is uncertain, even for people who plan to rebuild. During pandemic-related college closures, students have only been displaced temporarily, there is no change in available housing, and students will return when schools reopen.

For more information, see the Census Bureau’s Statement on Modifying 2020 Census Operations to Make Sure College Students Are Counted.