COVID-19 may have impact on census counts

About half of off-campus UWEC students have left Eau Claire, leading to a possible undercount

Madeline Fuerstenberg

More stories from Madeline Fuerstenberg

November 2, 2020

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The City of Eau Claire may lose around $594,000 in federal funding if only 5 percent of UW-Eau Claire’s off-campus students aren’t counted in the 2020 Census.

As the COVID-19 pandemic affects all facets of day-to-day life, one area of concern for the City of Eau Claire is the 2020 Census, which may fail to include some university students and thereby deprive the city of significant population-based revenues.  

Every 10 years, all U.S. residents are required to complete the census for the address they live at as of April 1. 

Pat Ivory, senior planner with the city’s department of community development, said there is some concern that Eau Claire will be undercounted because many UW-Eau Claire students left their rental homes after the campus was closed for the semester. However, he was unable to provide an estimate of how many students may be missed. 

Ivory said the city is entering “uncharted territory,” as the COVID-19 pandemic presents a first for the census, to the best of his knowledge. 

An email sent to all UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff by the chancellor’s office on March 17, estimated that only half of roughly 7,500 off-campus students have remained in Eau Claire, while only 15 percent of some 3,500 on-campus students had remained in the dorms.  

According to Ivory, student responses to the census fall into two categories. Students living in the dorms are counted by University Housing. 

“With the students living on campus, we should have a pretty accurate and complete count,” Ivory said. 

The other category, Ivory said, is where some issues are expected to arise. 

Students living off-campus, typically renters, are told in the census instructions to complete the form for the address where they live in Eau Claire — not the address where their family lives.  

According to Robin Miller, a librarian at McIntyre Library, renters and people between the ages of 18 and 30 tend to have lower response rates, making college students an underrepresented group in the best of times. 

The Randall Park neighborhood, Miller said, is an example of an area that is repeatedly undercounted because of its large student population. 

Miller is a member of the city’s Complete Count Committee, a group designed to promote the census and provide information to the community. 

She said students make up an important respondent population, so it is important for university representatives to be on that committee. 

According to Miller, it is her role to help develop a coordinated strategy for communicating with students about the census. She worked with UW-Eau Claire’s Integrated Marketing and Communications unit to draft an informational email to the students and worked to ensure that different groups around campus were “on the same page.” 

Ivory said the city is working in conjunction with the university to ensure that all off-campus students complete the census correctly.  

“We’re hoping to have some success there,” Ivory said. “Granted, some students will slip through the cracks and won’t be counted.” 

Ivory said an estimated $1,584 in federal funds for Wisconsin cities is lost per person who is not counted in the census. That adds up to an estimated loss to the city of $594,000 if 5 percent of UW-Eau Claire’s off-campus students aren’t counted.  

If 15 percent of the off-campus residents do not get counted, the estimated lost revenue total rises to nearly $1.8 million. The revenue lost through undercounting isn’t just a one-year phenomenon because it will recur every year until the 2030 census provides new totals. 

 In an email sent out to students, faculty and staff by the Dean of Students Office and the IMC on March 25, students were urged to file their census forms with their Eau Claire address. 

The email outlined other reasons why accurate population counts are important: 

  • Census results will impact funding for critical college student programs and planning in  local communities. 
  • Statistics from the 2020 census will help inform decisions about how to improve college campuses; school and student safety; mental health services; student wellness programs; the federal Pell Grant Program; adult education grants; agriculture, science and engineering education; and Medicaid. 
  • Census statistics are used to support community initiatives, to demonstrate need, to help nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups and to inform decisions about whether to expand college facilities. 

Ryan Banaszak, UWEC’s assistant director for Housing–Operations, is another member of the Complete Count Committee. He said the original plan was to work with the Student Senate to encourage students to participate in the census.  

However, that plan was abandoned after the campus closed, forcing the committee to look for new ways to inform students. 

“We had a few articles go up on the (UW-Eau Claire) website, some news bulletins were posted, some social media,” Banaszak said. “That message has been sent out multiple times the last couple of weeks.” 

Ivory said the census comes in two phases: self-response and non-response. The self-response phase is when the Census Bureau sends out information and people respond to the census on their own. This phase has been extended through the end of July. 

The non-response phase comes next. During this phase, the Census Bureau will send out representatives to every household where a census form has not been completed and ask residents to complete one. 

Ivory said he hopes to work with the university to obtain a list of empty student rentals. He would like to have campus administration reach out to those specific students, as they will not be present for the non-response phase.  

Miller and Ivory both said the COVID-19 pandemic has created a unique challenge for college towns. 

Ivory said Eau Claire has not yet worked directly with any other college towns regarding the census, but he hopes to ramp up outreach around mid-April and contact more universities. 

More information on the 2020 Census can be found on the Census Bureau website or the City of Eau Claire website

Fuerstenberg can be reached at [email protected].