Counting college students in the 2020 census

Published: Oct. 9, 2019 at 5:50 PM CDT
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Ahead of the 2020 census, UW Madison and the City of Madison are working together to make sure all college students get counted.

U.S. census data is used to help decide how federal funding is distributed to states and communities. The data is also used to draw local, state and congressional legislative districts.

All UW Madison students are counted as part of the city's population in the census, no matter where they are from. With over 45,000 students, that can make an impact, and the university wants to make sure their community is represented.

"We want to make sure it's an equitable process that includes everyone's voice," said Brenda Gonzalez, UW Madison's representative on Madison's Complete Count Committee.

The Complete Count Committee (CCC) was formed to help make sure hard-to-count populations in the city are accounted for in the census. Students are one of the biggest hard-to-count populations.

"They're moving every year, sometimes they'll be in different places in the summertime," said Ben Zellers, a Madison planner who is leading census outreach.

The city and the university are working together to make sure everyone is counted.

"Working with UW housing and resident assistance in dorms to working with their communications staff," Zellers said.

UW plans to create a website with information on the census, but they are also trying to reach students on the platforms they already use.

"It's not going to be only via email but also social media, students are going to be able to access that information on their phones," Gonzalez said.

The university is also looking at relying on student representatives like residence hall fellows to inform students and help them figure out how to fill out the census.

For the first time, the 2020 census can be filled out online, but Zellers said the Census Bureau has not decided whether they want students to use that option or use the traditional paper forms.

For UW Madison, census information has to be available to everyone, including international students. International students are counted in the census.

"The committee at the local level is thinking about multicultural, multilingual information," Gonzalez said.

The whole city depends on counting students accurately because those numbers will affect the federal funding that Madison has access too. An under-count would take a long time to fix.

"That wouldn't really just impact 2021 but would really impact the next 10 years until the next census is taken," Zellers said.

The biggest push from the city and the university to get information to students will start in January 2020. The city wants to get students counted the first time around -- by the time the Census Bureau starts to follow up with people who have not responded, the school year will be over.

Madison College students at various campuses also make up a significant student population, but those students are slightly easier to count. There are no dorms or residence halls, so all those students will receive census invitations in the mail like most people in the city.