March 15, 2010

College Students Count in the Census, but Where?

Where should college students be counted in the 2010 Census–at their parents’ home or their school address? The Census Bureau has a cut-and-dried answer, but this question recurs each decade because census rules and people’s preferences are not always in sync.

The 2010 Census operates on the idea that people should be counted at their usual address. According to census rules, people should be counted (“enumerated,” in census-speak) at a residence if they:

That means most college students should be counted at their college address, either on campus or off campus. They should be counted at their parents’ home only if they live and sleep there most of the year.

This is puzzling to many people. Even Census Bureau Director Robert Groves wrote on his blog that his two college-student sons were not sure whether they should fill out forms at their school addresses or at their parents’ house. Census research has found that some students are counted twice, once in each place.

To deal with this problem, the Census Bureau added a new question to the 2010 Census form asking whether each person listed as living in a household sometimes lives or stays somewhere else. For those who answer “yes,” the options include “in college housing.” Census officials hope that the answers to this question will help them determine the correct address for everyone who is counted and avoid counting college students more than once.

Census Rules Have Changed

There are good reasons that people are puzzled about where to count college students. Parents often pay tuition bills and claim their children as dependents on their income tax forms. Many students vote in their home towns, not their college towns. As this excellent National Academy of Sciences report on census residence rules points out, there also is an emotional component. Students may feel a sense of connectedness to their parents’ home and parents may think it is tantamount to a family breakup if their student-children are counted elsewhere.

Census rules and practices about where to count college students have varied over the years. From 1880-1940, instructions for census-takers gave the impression that the parental address, not the college address, was where the student should be counted. For the 1950 Census, the Bureau explicitly decreed that students should be counted at their “usual residence” on Census Day, which usually was their college address. As the National Academy of Sciences report points out, this coincided with a flood of college enrollment by World War II veterans under the G.I. Bill, which raised the age and altered the profile of the typical student.

The Census Bureau rules also have an impact on political representation, federal funding and demographic statistics for college towns. As with prisoners, a large college presence may inflate a town’s political clout in the state legislature. Many billions of dollars in federal funding is guided by census counts based on population totals, so college towns may benefit. The rules have been challenged for these reasons, but court decisions have upheld the Census Bureau’s practices.