Engaging students in the 2020 Census

June 23, 2020

By Laura Reindl

The 2020 Census is more than just a count of the people living in America — it has long-lasting political and financial ramifications for communities and individuals across the country. Census data determines political representation through the allocation of seats in the United States House of Representatives, shapes legislative redistricting and dictates the allocation of over $675 billion in federal funding annually, which impacts public services, infrastructure, emergency services, healthcare, education and more.

The decennial effort to get an accurate count is a challenge in and of itself — the final mail-in participation rate in 2010 was only 74% — but some populations are more difficult to count than others, such as those lacking stable housing, non-English-speakers and college students, most of whom have never experienced the census as an adult and are often confused about where they should be counted (at their parents’ address or at their school address).

The census counts people where they live and sleep for most of the year, meaning the majority of college students should fill out the census at their college address. This year’s “Get out the Count” effort was made particularly difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, which ended with many students getting sent back to their parents’ homes in March, just as census forms were being mailed out.

The Center for Civic Engagement at Binghamton University (CCE) has been working to encourage student participation in the census since last fall, focusing primarily on students living off campus, as the University coordinates a response for those living on campus. The CCE worked closely with local Census Bureau staff to educate students on the importance of the census and how to respond.

“The CCE stayed in communication with local government officials,” said Alison Handy Twang, associate director of the CCE, “who stressed the importance of the student count to ensure that our community receives access to funding and political representation.”

Student and professional staff from the CCE have presented census information during classes as requested by faculty members across campus; created a centralized webpage that includes frequently asked questions and short informational videos produced by Binghamton students; conducted outreach via flyers and social media campaigns; sent mass emails to target student populations such as fraternities and sororities, student athletes, international students, students living in major off-campus apartment complexes and graduate students; given interviews to student reporters for the campus newspaper (before and after the pandemic hit); and communicated directly with parents through social media and newsletters.

"Responding to the census is not only an important civic duty, it is also an act of political empowerment with long-term impacts on our community,” said Twang. “An accurate count ensures that our community will receive the access to the political representation and federal funding that we deserve. An under count is especially harmful to marginalized communities, and students can take action to support their community by responding to the census and encouraging their friends to respond."

It's not too late...

The Census Bureau has issued guidance that college students should still be counted at the residence they live while attending school, even if they have returned home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CCE will continue to reach out to students through the fall semester to encourage student participation. It’s not too late to fill out the census, and it can be done online, by mail or over the phone. Students who live with housemates should work together to submit just one census form for everyone at their address, but if they returned home before receiving the census instructions in the mail, or no longer have access to those instructions, students can still respond online by entering their school address. If it is not possible to coordinate with housemates, students can still submit an individual census response.

Beginning this fall, Census Bureau workers will begin going door-to-door in communities across the country, trying to collect data from those households who have not yet responded.