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College Towns Hit Census Pothole With Coronavirus Pandemic Closures Threaten Undercount of Students

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Above image credit: Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, is one of the postsecondary institutions in the region working with local officials on the census. (Courtesy Pittsburg State University)
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5 minute read

If you want to drive home to college students the importance of filling out the census, you might want to focus on driving home.

Brittan Brenner has gained that bit of wisdom as a community development specialist with the city of Pittsburg, Kansas. That thought was not top of mind even a couple years ago when she was a student at Pittsburg State University.

“Driving three hours on (U.S. Highway) 400 is a lot easier now than when I started college even,” Brenner said of trips to her hometown of Wichita.

Population-based highway funding is one way the rubber hits the road with census data, and Brenner is using that as one example in convincing students to take this year’s census seriously.

That is easier said than done even in the best of times. But the COVID-19 outbreak has made the task even more complicated, but no less critical to college towns like Pittsburg.

Now that students are scattered to the wind with campuses closed, the hardest part is reminding parents and students that the young adult’s official residence is the dorm or off-campus apartment in which they live. It is not the home address where they are living temporarily.

Brenner has been working with Pitt State officials for almost a year to ensure the most accurate count possible of students to ensure federal funding for years to come. And then, the COVID-19 closures started hitting right as census forms were showing up in the mail.

“We were sitting there in a frazzle wondering how we were going to fix this,” she said.

Big Money at Stake

Census data is said to direct more than $1.5 trillion a year in federal spending.

One the largest programs based upon census data are Pell Grants for low-income college students.

Census figures also drive billions of dollars of spending used to help needy families and individuals with rent and food assistance. As Brenner noted, those safety-net programs can be of huge importance to nontraditional college students.

Missouri and Kansas combined have more than 430,000 students enrolled in four-year institutions, including independent colleges and universities covered in the Missouri data.

That is just a fraction of the more than 9 million people living in the two states. But the impact is far greater for small college towns, including those within easy driving distance of the Kansas City area.

Those campuses include Emporia State University, and Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

In many of those communities, including Lawrence, Kansas, home to the University of Kansas, and Warrensburg, Missouri, home to the University of Central Missouri, students make up about a quarter of the population.

The impact is even greater in Pittsburg, where the students comprise about a third of the town’s 20,287 residents. Columbia, Missouri, has a similar percentage when you factor in the University of Missouri along with its two non-public institutions: Columbia College and Stephens College.

John Martellaro, a spokesman for the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was unable to make anyone available from the university. An inquiry to the city of Lawrence, went unanswered.

Town-Gown Relations

College towns often have a love-hate relationship with students. Along with vitality and spending power, these young adults also bring traffic and stupid behavior.

Warrensburg City Manager Harold Stewart said town-gown relations in his community are pretty good. He meets regularly with the university president.

The cooperation extends to their mutual interest in getting an accurate count of the students.

“Every dollar counts,” Stewart said, “so every person counts.”

The city has traditionally sponsored gatherings to encourage student participation in the census, offering free pizza and other incentives. That’s off the table now, of course.

The story is pretty much the same in Columbia. As is happening in other college towns, the city is using social media to get the word out to students and parents about the right way to fill out the census.

The city sends out a college-specific message about once a week, said spokeswoman Sara Humm.

Students use water and electricity, she said, so demand management requires an accurate count of the students. Students can also drive development patterns, Humm said, making the data important for economic development.

As much as students live online, James Williams is sensing information overload as vice president of student affairs at Emporia State. He’s worried that social media entreaties about the census might just get tuned out.

And given everything else students are adjusting to, Williams said, the census might not be a top priority anyway.

He’s hoping that door-to-door follow-up later this year by the U.S. Census Bureau will pick up any slack from students being away from campus now. 

As for now, he said, all they can do is hope their messaging takes hold.

“You can push, and push and push…,” Williams said.

No Fooling

April 1 might be known as a day for pranks, but it’s all business for the census bureau.

That’s Census Day, a clear demarcation for people who are transient for one reason or another. Their address, for census purposes, is the place they spend most of their time as of April 1.

On that day, census officials like Dennis Johnson stressed the message about counting college students at their campus addresses. Johnson is deputy director for the region that includes Kansas.

One silver lining of the COVID-19 outbreak, he said in an interview, was that people (students among them) might be more inclined to focus on the census as they shelter in place.

Moreover, Johnson said, the pandemic highlighted the importance of census data.

“As we look at the national emergency right now, it is really critical that we know where people are, how many people there are, who might be impacted, what the implications are,” he said. “And without the data you can’t do that, and that’s all part of the census.”

At that point, Johnson was confident the bureau would meet its statutory reporting deadline of Dec. 31. The bureau made it right under the wire several years ago, he said, after a fire in one of its offices forced a recount of one part of the country.

Yet only days later, on April 13, the bureau announced that, due to COVID-19, it was seeking congressional approval to extend the deadline to April 30, 2021.

Interactive COVID-19 Case Mapper

Under the revised schedule, the census bureau would extend the group-quarters response deadline from June to September. In-person counts of group quarters would also be extended into the fall. Dorms are considered group quarters.

Yet, for census advocates, an even more worrisome population are the college students who live off campus.

It is up to them to fill out the census, meaning many of them could miss reminders sent to their college address. Or, they may just blow it off, even though they can respond online from wherever the COVID-19 relocation has taken them — though a good internet connection is not guaranteed in rural areas.

Bureau officials and campus administrators are also pinning their hopes on the new eResponse option for the operators of group quarters. That system allows for bulk electronic reporting of all residents.

The bureau said last month that about half of the university housing operators had opted in to the eResponse system, though reporting has raised some privacy concerns on some campuses.


The census has termed 18- to 24-year-olds the “young mobile” crowd that is particularly hard to reach. These folks change addresses a lot, and, even if census takers show up at the correct address, this footloose crowd might not be home.

In its latest Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study, the census bureau found that about one in five of this young cohort indicated they were unlikely to respond to the census. About 40% of those respondents were unfamiliar with the census.

Hoping to penetrate these young minds, though, bureau officials noted in its online briefing that these 18- to 24-year-olds won’t be young forever.

“By the next census in 2030, more may be married, have children, and be settled in a community,” the bureau noted. “That’s why they should care about the federal funding for schools, firehouses, local parks and education programs for their children.”

In Pittsburg, city officials are still hopeful that this year’s census can provide a 10% percent bump in population from the 2010 census.

Brenner said the city is banking on economic growth, including more housing options for workers who used drive in even from nearby Missouri.

The city is also looking to benefit from action in November. It was then that Kansas voters repealed constitutional language that required college students to be counted in their home communities as opposed to their campus address.

With all these positive developments, Brenner said the city certainly does not want to wait another decade to boost its official population. “We want to strike while the iron is hot,” she said.

KCPT is committed to serving you with high-quality information and entertainment through this challenging time. Visit

Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at or 816.398.4205.

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