Off-campus students remain a challenge in Detroit’s census response

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Students can be counted at the address where they reside while attending college, rather than back home with their families. (Shutterstock photo)

It’s September and though schools may be back in session, college campuses around the country are still quite empty and have been since March. Things are no different in Detroit as the majority of classes are online due to the coronavirus pandemic causing less people to come back into the city. 

According to the city census data map, Midtown and the Wayne State University area — neighborhoods that have plenty of traditional and campus housing— still have some of the lowest census responses in the city, about 28 percent, while the city itself has pushed past the halfway mark with a response rate of 50.1, as of Wednesday.

The census counts people where they live and sleep most of the time, and that includes college students. But since students were sent home because of school closures in March, before census questionnaires were delivered, students are at risk of being undercounted, which can affect funding in college cities and towns. 

Shift in campus outreach

Wayne State officials said that they had been working with Victoria Kovari, who is leading Detroit’s Census initiative, for the past 1.5 years to encourage residents and students to respond to the 2020 Census. Wayne State ran volunteer events and education campaigns to help students understand that they could participate in the census for their campus address.

“We just wanted to let students know that the Census was coming up and talked about the areas in which it effected funding, roads, Pell education, healthcare and trying to find things that would matter to students,” said Carolyn Berry, WSU Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications. 

The city had planned to place kiosks throughout Detroit to make the census more accessible. One of those kiosks was going to be installed during spring break at the student center on Wayne’s campus. School officials also planned to have census information on the computer home screens in the libraries and computer labs. Unfortunately, schools never reopened and all campus initiatives came to a halt.  

“This is not a scenario we accounted for in our tactical planning to complete the census,” Berry said. 

Having an accurate student count is important for all schools, especially since the numbers will determine how much federal funding students receive, which is dire in an underserved city like Detroit. The Federal Pell Grant program provides “need-based grants to low-income students to promote access to postsecondary education” and they do not need to be paid back. 

According to Data Driven Detroit, a community organization that analyzes data, in 2016, $780 million was spent in Michigan for Federal Pell Grants. WSU officials said that in the last three years, an average of 43% of their students have received Pell grants. 

Students living on campus were easy to count

Berry confirmed that the population that was easy to account for were students who lived on campus because a lot of universities, including WSU, completed the Census on behalf of students in campus housing. 

“Students are to be counted at the address they reside while attending college rather than back home with their families. The census counts people — including college students — where they usually live as of April 1, 2020, even if they left town early because of a school closure or shift to distance learning,” U.S. Census Bureau director, Steve Dillingham, stated in a letter to college presidents.  

“There were lots of different variables as to why universities were choosing to do this and even before COVID-19 came up, we had communicated to students that if they live in campus housing then the university would submit that information as part of the group quarters tract that allowed us to do it. A census worker reached out to someone from campus housing and they provided a file of the residents that were living on campus. 

Wayne State provided what building people lived in and other general information that they were allowed to share based on the Freedom of Information Act from WSU students. 

Off-campus students remain biggest challenge

The biggest challenge for Wayne State is students who live off campus and those who moved just before the Census came out. 

“The group remains an unknown because we have no way of knowing if they complete the census,” Berry explained.

Typically, over the course of the summer, WSU stops its weekly newsletters, but this year the university continued to send them throughout the summer and included census messaging and information in hopes of getting students to respond. Berry said the school’s newsletter continued to see high open rates. 

Dillingham reached out to colleges and universities “with significant off-campus student populations.” School presidents were asked to provide roster information for off-campus students to make sure students were counted in the right place.

“One of the challenges though was that some of the information that we would have to submit in order to do that was information that we were not allowed to submit,” Berry said. “Our guidelines for our students did not give us permission to give out specific addresses.” 

Instead the school did a targeted email campaign to students letting them know if they did not fill out the census then the Bureau would give the school permission to fill it out on their behalf if the students allowed. The school set up a form for students to reply and they could submit their information. The deadline was the end of August, which is when school officials submitted the file to the Census Bureau.

Another issue is that students and people in general are being bombarded with information right now. With trying to figure out how to navigate online classes, COVID-19 information and all the things that are happening in the world, Berry said that the Census seems to be the last thing on students’ minds. 

Wayne State’s residence halls are about 40% full and about 8% of classes are face-to-face, according to school officials. With students being back in school virtually, the university plans to continue to take the lead from the city on how to encourage residents and students to respond to the census.

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