When the U.S. Census Bureau begins conducting its official national population head count April 1, the outcome of its efforts will, in part, reflect how successful it has been in partnering with colleges to drum up interest among students in participating in the national head count.
Racial minorities and college communities have historically been among so-called “hard to call” population groups in America and have tended to be undercounted in the national population head count conducted by the Census Bureau once every 10 years. This year could produce the same results, absent significant outreach by the Bureau and the nation’s colleges and universities.
“The Census is perhaps the most significant decennial event occurring in America because it affects everything from the drawing of Congressional districts to the flow of resources to the community,” says Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University.
“If you’re not counted, you’re counted out,” says Nelms, whose school provided the Census Bureau with computers and classroom space last fall to test job prospects. The school also gave the agency space in the school’s football stadium concession area, called E-town, to distribute information about the Census.
By law, the Census count is used to determine how many seats in the United States House of Representatives each state gets until the next Census is conducted in another 10 years. As importantly, population figures gathered by the Census are used to create mathematical formulas to determine how some $450 billion in federal revenue is divided each year among the states in the form of federal aid.
A good Census count means a lot for colleges and college communities that look to the federal government for all kinds of assistance, officials say, ranging from aid for tuition grants to funds for academic research and funds for area and campus safety programs.
NCCU was not alone in its bid to help. Tuskegee University in Alabama opened its doors last fall to Census promoters who gave away Census T-shirts, literature about the upcoming count and information about temporary jobs as Census workers. Savannah State University in Georgia was set to send students this winter to a Census Summit aimed at mobilizing college students.
In Michigan, where the poor state and national economies have caused major population losses, Census officials have partnered with Detroit’s Wayne State University, Michigan State University and a number of area community colleges to work together to put the Census on people’s radars.
The University of Texas, San Antonio, has a 15-member task force, led by the school’s president, developing one of the more ambitious plans among colleges for stimulating interest and participation in the Census, says John Kaulfus, associate dean of students at UTSA, a school with a large Hispanic enrollment.
UTSA has developed a Census video to be played during the half time of UTSA home basketball games this winter. It has developed Census pitches for its Facebook and MySpace pages. It is making signage that will be placed on many school buses in the weeks leading up to the official April 1 count day. A traveling Census van is scheduled to stop at the campus in mid-February to rev up student interest. The focal message at the school’s annual Rowdystock concert, set for late March, is the importance of participating in the 2010 Census.
“Students don’t understand they are to be counted where they are,” says Kaulfus. “They assume their parents are counting them,” he says. That is the wrong assumption to make, Kaulfus and Census officials say, unless the student is physically living at home on April 1. Still, counting college students poses its challenges.
“We have a lot of education and advocacy to do,” says Laura Waldon, partnership specialist for the Census Bureau’s Census on Campus campaign in the Northeast. Waldon says the Northeast Census team has designed and launched a college-focused Web site, 2010Census.gov/campus, aimed at stimulating college student interest. They are also working to get schools in the region to hold a Census Week in March to “raise student awareness,” says Waldon. “It’s a busy time” for students, she says, with “spring break, final exams. It’s definitely a challenge.”
In addition to the distractions of daily life, Waldon says other hurdles for some students may be that Census forms for 2010 are not online where many students spend much of their time. Trying to remind people of the residency rules — you fill out a form with information based on where you are April 1, regardless of whether that is your permanent residence – is also a challenge, says Waldon and some school officials. Work needs to be done to get foreign students in America attending college to be sure to fill out a form on April 1, as the Census seeks to determine the number of people living in the nation on that date, regardless of their homeland.Despite its importance and a $300 million promotion campaign launched in January, not every college has been actively recruited to help get out the count.
Officials at Xavier University of New Orleans, a city still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, say they had brief contact with Census representatives last fall and have not heard a word since about helping.
“Nobody is aware of any efforts, outreach or otherwise, to engage our campus or its students in Census awareness or participation of any sort,” says Xavier spokesman Warren Bell.
Bell says Census officials asked Xavier last fall for space to conduct some interviews and testing and have not contacted the school since. Several calls to Census Bureau organizers in the South about their work in the region were not returned.