As colleges across the country begin efforts to “get out the count” and energize students before the 2020 Census gets underway nationally in March, civic engagement advocates have identified numerous hurdles ahead.
There’s the challenge of simply informing students, a majority of whom have never participated in the decennial census, about the detailed questionnaire they will be receiving from the federal government and why it's important to fill it out.
The spread of misinformation on social media, misconceptions on how students are counted and propaganda campaigns that generate mistrust in government are also barriers that could impact student participation, said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director of the James Madison University Center for Civic Engagement. A controversial plan by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship status on the census questionnaire, while ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has already made some students and immigrants distrust the government's motives for doing the count and will likely discourage participation, Whaley said.
Another concern is that the 2020 Census only offers male and female options for respondents to report their gender, which excludes the identities of some in the LGBTQ community, she said. Whaley, who is a commissioner for Virginia’s Complete Count Committee, said she is telling Virginians to skip the question if it makes them uncomfortable.
Kell Crowley, a junior at Georgetown University, conducted research on the 2020 Census for the Beeck Center, the university's multidisciplinary center for the study of societal needs and challenges. She said she has seen calls to boycott the census because of the proposed citizenship question. While people are very open to the message that the census is fundamental to democracy and counts everyone, including noncitizens, constant news headlines about the citizenship question generate feelings of “risk and fear,” Crowley said. This in turn confuses students’ understanding of how the census is used, she said.
“Well-intentioned groups think that we should boycott the census because we shouldn’t be using it for partisan processes,” Crowley said. “Mostly I encountered apathy rather than students having direct negative opinions of it.”
Not participating in the census could disrupt the government's system for determining states' representation in Congress and federal funding for education, policing, health care and a host of social services. Whaley said it could hurt “hard to count” communities, which would receive fewer services and less representation as a result of an undercount. These communities include college students, undocumented and legal immigrants, non-English speakers, low-income people and others who have been historically less likely to complete the census. Whaley said that boycotting the census is counterproductive; those who aren't counted aren't considered in policy decisions by lawmakers.
“Participation is resistance,” Whaley said. “Seeing the way things have worked or not worked at the federal level, this is the system that we have, and if you don’t participate, you are not going to be represented … at various levels.”
This year will be the first time many traditional-age college students have even heard about the census, Whaley said. Many were children when the last census was taken a decade ago.
Census count committee members on college campuses have developed ways for individual students and student organizations to educate and encourage their peers to participate.
Los Angeles County's Complete Count Committee formed a coalition of local government officials, U.S. Census Bureau representatives and leaders from the area's colleges and universities. The group developed tool kits with messaging and strategies for student organizations and administrators to spread information about the census, said Marcus Rodriguez, director of student leadership, involvement and community engagement at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The kit for student organizations suggests asking “the student government … to adopt resolutions about the importance of the 2020 Census” and “arrange for the student newspaper and other student media outlets to report on the census.”
The kit also provides information on Census Bureau job opportunities. About 500,000 jobs are available, including for enumerators who go door to door to help community residents complete the census, which the bureau has advertised directly to students, said Marissa Corrente, deputy director of the Students Learn, Students Vote Coalition, or SLSV. For community college students who often work while attending classes, positions with the bureau can be a great opportunity, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, or AACU.
“They’re seen as those trusted messengers to engage their peers and community members,” Corrente said.
James Madison introduced a course this semester called Democracy Counts, which involves students from multiple disciplines participating in efforts on campus and in the Harrisonburg, Va., community to get out the count, said Whaley, who is co-teaching the class with five other professors. Students in the course will put door hangers on off-campus housing to remind students about the census and visit classrooms to speak about its importance, Whaley said.
Kearstin Kimm, a student in the course, is hoping to learn more about the security measures the Census Bureau has to combat fraudulent submissions and false information.
“Combating disinformation is extremely difficult,” said Kimm, a senior majoring in computer science. “It’ll take a lot to overcome it, especially because of online submissions. There’s a lot more opportunity for people to misrepresent it, and that’s scary.”
This year will be the first time that respondents will be able to submit their answers to the questionnaire through the internet. Households will receive up to five cards in the mail in mid-March inviting them to respond to the questionnaire online, by telephone or through traditional mail, according to the bureau. In theory, internet responses could be beneficial for counting students because of their digital literacy, but it shouldn’t be assumed that young people will respond just because it seems easier, Whaley said.
“People think at all different levels that if we put something on social media, if we put this online, people are just going to do it,” Whaley said. “We have to focus on that education piece.”
The bureau is also working with the Public Relations Student Society of America, a national organization for college students studying public relations and communications, on a student-centered information campaign "to help spread the word about the 2020 Census, the importance of completing it, and targeting those messages towards specific hard to count groups as well as their college campus and communities at large," a Census Bureau official said.
Corrente of SLSV said the low level of participation by college students in past censuses is comparable to their voting record. But compared to voting, students have very little baseline understanding of how the process works and why it matters, she said.
The Pell Grant program, which provides need-based federal financial aid to qualifying low-income students, is one of the top five federal programs with funding determined by census data, according to the Census Bureau. The census provides indicators -- income level, degree completion, occupation -- for the number of people that will be seeking a college degree in the future and will need Pell Grants, said Luis Maldonado, vice president of government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“I believe that the census drives the underlying conversation and structure of how much money are we going to need, based on how many needy students we have,” Maldonado said.
Population counts also shape the budgetary decisions of college leaders, business owners and local government officials, all of which can indirectly impact students, said Parham of AACU. The census gauges a community's fiscal health and can shift the focus of job-training programs at community colleges as employment opportunities are created or disappear because of demographic changes, Parham said.
"It could impact the manner in which a community works," Parham said. "It could impact the local economy, the workforce, the ecosystem, if you will … It’s all connected."
Community college students make up a "large swath" of all college students, and AACU is working closely with the Census Bureau to ensure an accurate count of those enrolled in community colleges across the country, Parham said.
Corrente said there’s a misconception that all students are counted by university officials. Only a small percentage of students live in residence halls, and they can be counted by an administrator based on the Census Bureau’s guidelines for group quarters, she said. Students should complete the census where they “live and sleep most of the time” and should not be counted by their parents if living away from home, according to the bureau. Students living off-campus with roommates will need to elect one representative who will complete the census questionnaire for all who live in the residence.
"That’s a reason why it’s confusing for students, because we don’t have a 'head of household,'" Crowley, the Georgetown student, said. "Many, many people will be double-counted because their parents count them at home. I still consider myself to be living in Boston, but I’ve made it very clear to my parents not to count me on their census. I doubt many students are having that conversation with their parents, especially this early."
Corrente said SLSV, which is a project of Young Invincibles, a national organization working on increasing youth civic engagement, will share best practices throughout January and February for educating students about the census with partner institutions and community organizations helping to lead campus counts. The focus now is communicating to students why the census is important, she said.
“It doesn’t just impact their community this year -- it impacts their community for the next 10 years,” Corrente said. “The census impacts power -- your political representation and the resources you get. We break it down to power and money.”