'It's going horribly': College towns fret about census count

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People use a footbridge over University Avenue on the campus of Arizona State University on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. Officials in college towns all over the U.S. are fretting that off-campus students are being counted in places other than the communities where their schools are located. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX – Betsy Landin was listed by her parents on the 2020 census as living at her family's home in Phoenix when she really should have been counted in the college town of Tempe, where she studies finance at Arizona State University.

Also missing from Tempe's tally was Arizona State political science major Betzabel Ayala, whose mother counted her on the family's census form in Phoenix because she was living at home after coronavirus lockdowns led to a nationwide exodus from college towns last spring.

In yet another example of the widespread disruption caused by the global outbreak, hundreds of thousands of U.S. college students who normally live off campus in non-university housing are being counted for the 2020 census at their parents' homes or other locations when they were supposed to be counted where they go to school.

The confusion has enormous implications for college towns, which may face severe shortfalls in federal dollars and a dilution of political power.

“We really didn’t have any instruction or guidance at school about how to fill out the census,” Landin said.

No easy solution has presented itself. The Census Bureau sought the help of college administrators in getting rosters for off-campus students who left town, but only half of the schools cooperated. Many universities were reluctant to participate because of privacy concerns and because off-campus students at many schools are not obligated to provide information about where they live.

And a significant chunk of the information provided by the schools is missing important information, such as birthdates, according to a report last month by the bureau's watchdog agency.

From Tempe to places like Bloomington, Indiana, and Gainesville, Florida, the looming undercount could harm college towns across the country. In some places with major universities, students make up as much as three-quarters of the population.