UW-Madison faces census challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- The coronavirus outbreak has forced universities to send students home for the rest of the semester, and that has raised questions about how the 2020 census will count college students.

Census data impacts how cities and states get their share of almost $700 billion in federal funding. The data also determines how congressional, state legislative and local alders' districts are drawn.

UW-Madison and the City of Madison are working together to try and make sure every student is counted in the city. Even if students have moved home, they should still be counted in Madison.

"If you were a Badger and you are going to come back, please be counted," said Brenda Gonzalez, Director of Community Relations at UW-Madison.

For students who lived in dorms, the university is handling most of the counting.

"The university can actually share information from our students that is part of the directory," Gonzalez explained. That information includes name, age and address.

For off-campus students or students who opted out of the director, UW-Madison is asking all of them to fill out the census online.

"[The Census Bureau] will be able to find out if it's a duplication of the information so please fill out the form even if you think, 'My parents already filled it out or my roommate back home fill[ed] it out," Gonzalez said.

This includes international students as well as students who had to leave study abroad programs that the university cancelled. Gonzalez said it is okay if those students do not have a Madison address yet.

"If you're about to move in or you're moving in during the summer, please wait till that moment so you can provide that address," she said.

The university is working to share information with students about how different groups are counted and how they can fill out they census on their own.

UW-Madison is relying heavily on an online response from students, while other parts of the city might be able to count on in-person responses as well.

"Census Bureau staff were going to be going door-to-door in the off-campus areas in early April," said Brian Grady, planner with the City of Madison.

The door-to-door process has been postponed to August, when students might not be back or will be moving.

Grady said the city and the university are already seeing the impact of these challenges.

"Certainly, the UW-Madison area is lagging in response," Grady explained.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a map tracking response rates on their website. Right now, the census tracts on UW-Madison's campus have a response rate between 10 percent and 40 percent. Most of the rest of the city has a response rate above 50 or 60 percent.

UW-Madison has over 45,000 students, and because of the impact of the census, it is important to count them all.

"We want to make sure that the city and the state [have] the same opportunities, they have the same funding," Gonzalez said.

The deadline to fill out the census was July 31, but it has been extended to October 31 due to the pandemic. The census is being offered in several different languages, including Spanish.