Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Homes in Chappaqua, New York. COVID-19 may threaten census accuracy in Ithaca after students retreated to their hometowns.

April 20, 2020

Student Exodus Threatens Accuracy of Collegetown Census

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From the distribution of Congressional districts to higher education attendance statistics, the decennial U.S. Census data is at the root of several essential sets of numbers on which the country depends.

Because of mass relocation caused by the pandemic, it is more likely than ever that people will be miscounted in the 2020 Census at the wrong residence — or not counted at all — particularly in college towns across America.

Students who live in Ithaca for the majority of the year should be counted as living in Ithaca, even though most have returned home, according to the Census Bureau.

“[Students] utilize resources in Ithaca. So they’re driving on the streets here, they utilize water, garbage pickup, a lot of these things that we that are invisible that we tend not to think about, but which we need to have information about to know how many people require these kinds of services,” said Prof. Sharon Sassler, policy analysis and management.

According to Kate Supron, Cornell’s 2020 Census liaison, students who live in on-campus housing at Cornell are automatically counted by the University’s collaboration with the Census Bureau. Students who live off-campus, however, must fill out their off-campus Ithaca address in order to be counted in the correct location.

And current data shows that Cornell students are not doing this.

Nationally, the 2020 census has a response rate of 50.5 percent. In Collegetown, the response rate is 18 percent, according to Warren Brown, director of the Program on Applied Demographics and research director of the Cornell Federal Statistical Research Data Center.

“That’s an indication of how bad it is,” Brown said.

Several uses of Census data directly impact students, such as how federal financial aid is distributed.

“Pell Grants, adult education grants, Ag. science and engineering education grants, student wellness programs, our medical assistance programs, community mental health services” are all things that depend on complete census data, Supron explained. “I think the Census in general is important to each community and in its own unique way.”

Despite uses of census data that directly impact students, they are typically the most mobile and difficult to trackdown, explained Sassler, which is only exacerbated by confusion surrounding where students should count themselves.

Brown and his expert colleagues from the National Academy of Science advised the Census Bureau on implementation strategies. “Nowhere in our wildest dreams did we expect something as disruptive as this pandemic,” Brown said.

In an effort to raise the Cornell student response rate, the University, Cornell Votes and the Office of Student Government Relations are working to inform students of the correct way to fill out the Census, and the importance of the data that will be collected.

“We worked on a newsletter together, centered around how voting is changing right now, and there’s also a section talking about the Census, hitting on some of the key points,” said Lucas Smith ’22, chair of the S.A. City and Local Affairs committee.

Smith has been working with Supron since the fall semester to push out Census related programming. The newsletter will be coming out later this week.

Supron explained that before the pandemic, her office was drafting quarter-cards and posters to inform students. As students returned home, those plans changed rapidly. Now, outreach on social media and online programming is the main method.

“We’re trying to push out as much messaging as we can, as fast as we can,” Smith said.

College students make up a large portion of the population in Tompkins County — about 30 percent, according to Supron.

“[Students] are part of the Ithaca community. Without getting them counted, we don’t get the services that we need for the whole community,” Supron said.


This piece is part of The Cornell Daily Sun’s Election 2020 Section. Read more of The Sun’s election coverage here.