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As the global COVID-19 pandemic has escalated, culminating in students being advised to vacate campus, the University has devised a new plan for ensuring an accurate census count.

This article is part 1 of a two-part Spectator series, Undercounted, which covers the role of students in the 2020 census and how the COVID-19 pandemic may leave lasting effects. Read part 2 for more information on the impact and history of undercounting the community.

Columbia students, who experts say have been historically misrepresented or “hard-to-count” in the U.S. census, will be counted electronically by the University in the 2020 census.

The census—a decennial survey which aims to count everyone living in the United States—is tasked with producing an accurate statistical portrait of the ever-changing country. Between January and July, groups of people are counted through different methods depending on their location and residency.

According to Census Bureau parameters, college students living on campus are intended to be counted by their universities in their residence halls, as they spend the most time there, and use the federal resources allocated to these communities. Historically, college students have either not been counted at all or have been counted twice, at both their permanent addresses and college residences, according to the Association of College & Research Libraries.

Cara Brumfield, a senior policy analyst at the Economic Security & Opportunity Initiative at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, emphasized that an accurate count of student populations affects a number of operations such as transportation, infrastructure, and federal funding.

“The census is sort of this statistical backbone that, yes, allows federal funding to appropriately flow into communities, but also helps us to understand the needs and characteristics of these communities,” Brumfield said.

For the 2020 census, Barnard and Columbia originally aimed to employ different methods: Barnard would count students by residence hall, while Columbia would have census forms available for students to complete and submit individually, said panelists at the Barnard event on Students and the census in March.

But as the global COVID-19 pandemic has escalated, culminating in students being advised to vacate campus, the University has devised a new plan for ensuring an accurate census count. In accordance with the guidelines released by the Census Bureau regarding COVID-19, the University “will be adopting the Electronic Data Transfer or eResponse method of enumeration where it is appropriate and feasible for members of our community who reside in traditional dorm style housing,” while remaining consistent with the privacy guidelines detailed in the University’s FERPA policy, according to a statement from a University spokesperson.

“You ride the subways; you use the roads and all sorts of public infrastructure. And since the census is used so thoroughly in allocating critical funds for these purposes, you could arguably say that’s a reasonable judgment on the part of the Census Bureau, that you should be counted here,” said David Weiman, a Barnard economics professor and director of the Barnard Empirical Reasoning Center.

In 2010, over a quarter of the Morningside Heights and West Harlem community did not self-respond to the census, which resulted in undercounting. The effects of this, coupled with the confusion around college students’ representation in the census, the community has lost out on potential funding and resources, Brumfield said.

Paige Moskowitz, BC/JTS ’20 and the co-founder of Columbia Votes, highlighted the role of college students’ civic engagement in their local communities.

“If college students don’t consider themselves residents of that area, they’re giving that geographical area less political power and less political representation which in turn really hurts the permanent residents who stay there,” Moskowitz said.

In 2020, the census has become politicized and “a tool of political advantage,” said Kenneth Prewitt, the former director of the United States Census Bureau in 2000 and a public affairs professor at the School of International and Public Affairs.

The census, in addition to allocating federal funds and resources, is also used in creating congressional districts and determining the political representation an area receives. Moskowitz expressed that while college students spend only four years in the community, they still play a significant role in local politics.

“I think it’s very easy for students to see themselves as isolated and temporary residents of this area, but again our actions have a direct impact on people who live here long-term,” Moskowitz said.

Widespread confusion about the role and use of the census, as well as a growing distrust in the government, has led to severe undercounts in New York City in previous census counts, Barnard political science professor Michael Miller said.

The resources on the line could provide much-needed relief for the community, Brumfield added.

“Rather than fixating only on representation, we should be mindful that the census has particular relevance for folks who might need these government sources the most,” Miller said.

These government services also directly impact the lives of college students, including allocating Pell Grant funding for recipients.

“I think a big part of it is just realizing that the student population who lives in Morningside Heights is a part of Harlem. We’re not just our own little separate bubble,” Moskowitz said. “It can feel like that sometimes, but the decisions we make and the decisions the University makes have rippling effects throughout the neighborhood.”

Staff writer Defne Egbo can be contacted at Follow the Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

2020 Census Undercounting West Harlem COVID-19 federal funding transportation
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