Now More Than Ever: Higher Education’s Civic Responsibility

Amid the immediate crises and short-term responses, colleges and universities also have a long-term obligation to ensure a complete and accurate count in the 2020 Census, writes Jonathan R. Alger.

April 13, 2020
 
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We are living in extraordinary times that pose great challenges to our society, economy and democracy. The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has forced public and private actors to react with unprecedented speed to the growing global public health crisis, and it has created widespread fear and uncertainty -- especially for communities and industries most vulnerable to disruption by virus-related demand declines, shutdowns and layoffs. Higher education has been hit hard, as our students, faculty and staff grapple with sudden conversions from face-to-face classes to distance education formats along with drastic changes in housing and food arrangements, commencement schedules, and academic conferences and events.

Similarly, the U.S. Census Bureau has had to make major changes quickly, including delaying the start of field operations at a critical time. Amid the immediate crises and short-term responses, higher education also has a long-term civic obligation to the communities in which we are situated to ensure a complete and accurate count in the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau needs the assistance of every college and university to educate and engage the approximately 19 million students across the nation about why the census matters and how students should be counted. And it does matter immensely to higher education. This year's census results will impact political representation and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding for student loans and grants, education and training programs, mental health services, and many other vital initiatives. Additionally, not only do faculty, staff and students in higher education rely heavily on census data for research, but such data are often the bases for many economic development decisions in our communities.

Counting Students

Students should be counted where they usually live at their college address, even if they are temporarily staying elsewhere because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students who normally live in an off-campus apartment or house will need to respond, and one person should complete the form for everyone normally living together at their off-campus housing address. If students have access to mail at their off-campus address, they will receive an invitation with a unique census ID that they can enter when they respond online.

If students do not have access to mail at their off-campus address, they can still go online to respond and provide their address instead. If students don’t have information on all of their roommates or can’t verify whether roommates have already responded, they should still complete the census and include everyone who normally lives with them in college. The Census Bureau has tools to unduplicate responses and would rather eliminate duplicates than miss anyone entirely. Students who live in their own apartments or houses away at college should tell their parents not to include them in their response.

Students who normally live in a dorm or college-owned Greek housing are part of Group Quarters enumeration. The Census Bureau is working with student housing administrators on counting these students. Representatives can ask students to complete an individual census questionnaire, or housing administrators can provide the Census Bureau directory information (electronically or via paper records) about students, in compliance with FERPA. Students who live in a dorm or college-owned housing should tell their parents not to include them in their response.

Given the health risks posed by in-person social interactions, the Census Bureau encourages people to self-respond online, by phone or paper form. Census takers will follow up with those who have not yet responded when it is safe to do so within public health guidelines. As of now, the Census Bureau expects to deliver the final count to the president of the United States by Dec. 31, 2020, as required by federal law.

Students Spreading the Word

With temporary closures, colleges and universities can engage students to think creatively and collaboratively about how to engage their peers. Seniors who are graduating and may not return to the community where they went to college may be the hardest to reach, and colleges can incentivize their participation. At James Madison University, student leaders at the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement are sponsoring a social media video and photo competition and reaching peers through emails, group chats, texts and student organization affiliations.

The Madison Center has also created engaging and informative digital content, including PowerPoints and videos that faculty members can share in online course content or via email with a direct link to complete the census. Among other things, the Madison Center is offering virtual 2020 Census discussions and workshops that faculty and student organizations can request. JMU has also put global announcements in our online instructional tool and in our course registration system with information about where students count and a link to the online census portal.

The Census Bureau has also announced a Video Prize Challenge to content creators, from students to pros, to help get the word out about the 2020 Census through a short-format video for a chance to win up to $30,000. The goal of this competition is to reach hard-to-count communities, which depend on complete and accurate census data, with engaging and informative content. This open call for content is designed to help educate and motivate individuals so that they understand why it’s critical to complete the 2020 Census -- from ensuring accurate representation in Congress to getting the funding their communities desperately need.

The Vital Benefits for Colleges and Universities

Results of the 2020 Census will determine how many representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and serve as the basis for redistricting at the local, state and federal levels. Statistics from the census will also help local, state and federal officials decide how to spend billions of dollars in federal funds every year for the next 10 years on vital public services like education, health care, infrastructure and transportation.

In fact, several major federal programs help colleges and their students, as well as local, state and federal officials, use Census Bureau data to inform funding decisions. Among programs aimed at colleges and college students:

  • Pell Grants for college students. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education spent nearly $30 billion to subsidize college tuition for students in need of financial assistance nationwide. The program is the fifth-largest federal program whose funding is informed by census statistics.
  • Aid for land-grant and historically black colleges and universities. The Evans-Allen program supports agricultural research at land-grant and historically black colleges. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted $52 million to 18 colleges, including Tuskegee University, West Virginia State University and Central State University.
  • Federal grants for vocational training. The U.S. Department of Education funded $1.1 billion in grants to states to improve vocational training in high schools, community colleges and technical centers.

Businesses also rely heavily on census data for market research. Though an important foundation for market research, census data tell businesses much more than just how many people live in an area. Businesses are able to use the data to determine ages, income, education, occupation and even commuting patterns of those who live in a particular area. In turn, corporate entities can use the information to inform the types of products and services they might deliver to a particular area. Such data often are the bases for whether a company will be successful or whether it needs to shift its focus to find that success.

Now, more than ever, communities are counting on colleges and universities. In many communities, colleges and universities play a large role in the resilience of their respective areas. We ask that institutions use the communications tools at their disposal to let their students, faculty and staff know why the 2020 Census is important and that they can be a part of helping communities weather this crisis. By encouraging students, faculty and staff to participate fully in the census, institutions of higher education can help surrounding towns and regions rebound from the social and economic impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and contribute to the long-term vitality of those communities of which they are a part.

Bio

Jonathan R. Alger is president of James Madison University.

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