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The census takes place every 10 years and is mandated by the US Constitution. The Constitution requires that the census includes all people residing in the United States, regardless of citizenship status. However, not everyone gets counted, and the stakes are high.

More than 600 billion federal dollars are distributed to state and local governments each year, based on census counts. This includes Pell grant funding, SNAP funding (food stamps program), school lunch programs, job training program funding and more. The count also determines Congressional seats and other election district mapping. 

There has long been confusion, distrust, and other issues that have lead to the historical undercount of particular communities. This includes those experiencing homelessness, Native American communities, and immigrant communities. Moreover, simply being a renter is the number one predictor of going uncounted in the census (you can look up historically undercounted communities from across the country on this map  ).

Colleges and universities have many incentives to alleviate students’ confusion and fears and to help them get counted in the right way. While many students may think they should be counted at their parents’ address, the policy is that people should fill out the census for the address they live in on the date of the Census. Students may be difficult to reach and unclear on the important of a complete count. Additionally, international students may think they shouldn’t be counted; however, the Census applies to all people living in the United States on the official date, not just those with citizenship status.

In addition to a responsibility to help achieve a correct count of students, colleges and universities can view the Census as  a learning opportunity and a tool for living out their civic mission. The Census is a critical tool for our democracy and it is important that students understand it and the roles they can play in ensuring its accuracy.

Why does the Census matter?
  • Counting for Dollars 2020: This document from the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy provides a detailed list of the programs which receive funding based on census counts, including how much money goes to various states. (See the report here.)
  • Census 2020 in Minnesota: This set of slides from the Minnesota State Demographic Center provides more information about how the census works and its implications for Minnesota. (See the slides here.)
  • Mapping Historically Undercounted Communities: This interactive map allows users to search for and identify census tracts in their area that have been historically undercounted. It’s a project of CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center. (See map here.)
  • Census Data Used in Economic and Community Development: This report explains the different ways the Census gets used: businesses use census data to decide where to build factories, offices and stores, and this creates jobs; developers use the census to build new homes and revitalize old neighborhoods;  local governments use the census for public safety and emergency preparedness; and residents use the census to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality-of-life and consumer advocacy. (See report here.)

… and it doesn’t just affect representation or communities for a month or a year … it affects these aspects of life for the next 10 years!!

What role can colleges and universities play?

Issue: People don’t know why it’s so important

  • Develop educational exercises and resources for use in classes
  • Consider showing this brief College Student Outreach video
  • Dialogue Guide: This guide helps students explore the importance of and issues surrounding how we achieve a complete and accurate census count. It provides informational content, instructions for a simple small group dialogue, and dialogue prompts.   
  • See Minnesota Higher Education Network’s curricular resources at: https://www.censusedmn.com/curriculum
  • Develop community-engaged learning courses incorporating Census-related activities. For example:
    • Cultural Anthropology: Dominican University students in Marin County California analyze the Census website using a Community Context Worksheet to learn more about the community. Each student interviews a member at their community partner organization about his or her knowledge of the census and create a transcript that can be used by community partners for outreach. (Partners: Canal Alliance, Health Hubs, RotaCare, Ritter Center, Coleman Elementary School.)
    • Education: Dominican University students create and implement lesson plans in K-8 classes to teach students about the census, what it is, why it is important, and how to talk to their friends and families about it.
    • Occupational Therapy: OT students at Dominican University prepare materials focused on training and resources for the drivers/meal delivery volunteers working for San Rafael’s Whistlestop. Whistlestop promotes the independence, well-being and quality of life for older adults and people living with disabilities in Marin County. The objective is to increase the quality of the communication and social interactions between the volunteers and the program members. This will better position the drivers to serve as trusted messengers during the census.
    • For Service-Learning classes across the curriculum: Students may focus on collecting and designing messaging and outreach recommendations that trusted messengers can use to increase participation among hard to count (HTC) populations. Students may utilize participatory observation, interviews, and focus groups to develop messaging and outreach strategies.  This will provide a substantial pool of information that can inform messaging and outreach at the grassroots organizing level.
  • Check out the following resources on the important role of libraries:

Issue: Distrust

  • Prepare students as liaisons to their own hard-to-count communities

Issue: Staffing

Issue: People want training

  • Develop resources on how the census works
  • These resources from the New England Literacy Resource Center include Spanish-language and easy-to-read, and engaging resources designed for ABE, ASE, and ESOL students: https://nelrc.org/stand-up-and-be-counted/census2020/  

Issue: Off-campus students

Issue: Online completion of the first digital Census

How does the Census Work? FAQs

The census takes place starting April 1, 2020 and is based on the address where someone is living/staying on that specific day.

    • Student highlight: It is NOT based on your “permanent address” or who might claim you as a dependent on their taxes.
    • Students who live on campus in residence halls will have their census information completed for them by their college or university. Everyone else must complete one census form on their own for all the people living at their address.

First, people will be asked to complete an online or phone census form. Those who don’t respond will receive a paper form in the mail. Census enumerators, people from your area who are being employed by the Census, will come to the doors of those who don’t complete the paper form.

Confidentiality: By law, your responses cannot be used against you by
any government agency or court in any way. Read more from the US Census Bureau about Census confidentiality here.

Campuses may want to create their own FAQs specific to their context. Here is an example from James Madison University.

What are the challenges getting a complete count?


There are many factors that may lead to an undercount in the Census:

  • Citizenship status question – The U.S. Supreme Court decided on June 27, 2019 that a citizenship status question WILL NOT be included on the 2020 Census.
  • Many people face barriers to participation, such as people experiencing homelessness, and those speaking languages that the Census online form will not be translated into, such as Hmong, Oromo, and Somali. (Note: Videos and printed materials will also be made available in 59 total languages. Many local community centers, libraries, schools, and nonprofits are also offering other census resources.)
  • Despite the fact that the citizenship question will not be included on the 2020 Census, some communities have uncertainty about whether their other Census data could be used against them.

Addressing Fear and Mistrust:

  • It’s illegal for anyone but the Census Bureau to use your information or share your personal census responses.  2020 Census and Confidentiality Overview
    • Title 13 of U.S. Code states that it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share one’s information with another government entity – federal, state, or local – until 72 years have passed. This means that until that 72-year period expires, no one is ever identified individually in the census data. This also means that the Census Bureau would not be allowed to share an individual’s census information with a local housing authority or a federal agency like ICE.
  • Many do not feel comfortable talking to someone from Census at their door. Fortunately, you can reduce the chance of a census worker coming to your home if your household responds to the census online before enumerators begin going door-to-door.

Counting the Hard to Count in a Census:  

• There has long been confusion, distrust, and other issues that have lead to the historical undercount of particular communities. This includes those experiencing homelessness, Native American communities, and immigrant communities.Moreover, simply being a renter is the number one predictor of going uncounted in the census (you can look up historically undercounted communities from across the country on this map).

  • While are challenges to getting an inclusive count for the Census, there are strategies to follow to it well. (See this report.)
COVID-19 and the Census

Census Bureau COVID-19 Guidance

The key takeaways are:

  • Students should still be counted in their campus community whether they are living in on or off campus housing.  Per the Census Bureau’s residence criteria, in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • For Off Campus Students, continue to encourage them to fill out the Census online at https://my2020census.gov/.  They do not need to have their letter or their Census ID number to fill out the form online.  The Census website can identify them with their off-campus address.  They should communicate with roommates to designate one responder.
  • For on-campus counts, Campus officials should continue to work with the Census Bureau Groups Quarters contact person.  Schools that chose to do student self-response are being given the option to switch to eResponse methodology.  Your Census contact should be reaching out to you but you should also feel free to contact them directly.  If you don’t know who that is, I am happy to try to help.
  • The Early Nonresponse Followup Operation (when census takers knock on doors) has been pushed back from April 9th to April 23rd.  At this point we don’t know how many students will be back in their campus residences at that time so please continue to encourage off campus students to respond online.

What Campuses Should be doing:

  • Use your normal online platforms to continue to remind students about the Census and their responsibility.  The Census Bureau has some useful graphics: Educator Outreach Material
  • The Census Open Innovation Lab (COIL) has created a number of social media friendly memes, videos, and posts that can be used for different audiences.
  • Ask Student Leaders to use TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and any other social media platform to get out the Census message.
  • Does your President or Football Coach or a popular professor have a large following on social media?  Reach out to those trusted, popular voices to get the message to students.
  • Remind all faculty and staff that are interacting with students online that the Census is still happening.  Ask them to put a Census message in their signature or syllabi.
What messages about the Census will resonate?

Census 2020 Communication & Mobilization Plan (Example from Minnesota)

  • Based on an intensive listening project engaging members of historically under-counted communities in Minnesota,  Grassroots Solutions created two reports as part of their Census Mobilization Partnership:  The Plan for Engaging Historically Undercounted Communities in Minnesota in the 2020 Census & Key Themes and Sample Messages to Guide Communication about the Census in Minnesota’s Historically Undercounted Communities  The Census Mobilization Partnership encourages broad and consistent use of the messages, themes, and strategies referenced here.
What can we do?
  • Share this short video describing the importance of the Census with students to whom you are connected.
  • Are you a trusted messenger? Think about communities you’re connected to: geographic, cultural, religious, campus student groups, or other communities. Are you a trusted messenger in those spaces? If the census matters to you, you may be able to help others in those communities get information about and participate in the upcoming census. On the other hand, there is so much distrust about the census that it can actually be harmful for “outsiders” to enter communities where they do not have pre-existing trusting relationship to try to help people participate in the census. Self-awareness and reflection are important first steps prior to deciding how to be helpful.
  • Work for the Census. These are part-time jobs that can be done in the evening or weekend and pay well. The Census Bureau particularly needs people with language skills and relationships in their own communities who can help achieve a complete count. Due to the low unemployment rate, the Census is working hard to fill these positions. If part-time work in your own community could be a fit for you, consider applying. (More information here.)
  • Talk to friends, family, and neighbors about the 2020 Census. A lot of people just don’t know the Census is coming, and once they understand how important it is to their communities and that others they trust think it matters, they do, too. 
  • Commit to Count Table. Set up a table on campus before the Census to provide information, have people commit to participate in the Census, and write reminder postcards to have sent to themselves.
  • Host a Dialogue. On campus or in the community, use this small group dialogue guide to have a conversation with others about your experiences, hopes, fears, and expectations about the census. 
  • Help people complete the Census form. If you’re a trusted member of a community, you could be an important helper. Libraries, schools, and other familiar and trusted community centers can be places where neighbors access computers and get help completing the Census form for their household.
  • Join a Complete Count Committee. Across the state, people are coming together to form Complete Count Committees (CCC). You can form a CCC around a physical or interest community, or connect to one that already exists. Learn about CCCs here. List of Complete Count Committees across the country: https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/2020-complete-count-committees.html
  • Contact a local library or League of Women Voters. Organizations such as libraries and local LWV chapters are organizing to support complete census counts. Find one near you and reach out to see if you can support their efforts.