Nevada colleges aim to include difficult-to-count students in 2020 census

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Dave Zajac / Record-Journal via AP

Sample copies of the 2020 census forms are shown. Officials are coordinating outreach initiatives at Nevada higher education institutions to ensure students — who traditionally are undercounted — participate in the process.

Tue, Feb 25, 2020 (2 a.m.)

When it comes to the 2020 U.S. census, Nevadans are hard to count. One surprising reason for this is the housing status of college students in Nevada.

The majority of college students statewide, including at UNLV, live off campus and commute. That makes it difficult for census takers at universities to accurately count students, already a problematic population in the decennial census, said Kerry Durmick, statewide census coordinator.

“Nevada is a highly commuter state, so we don’t have a large dorm population on our campuses,” Durmick said. “It’s very, very different from other states.”

All Nevadan households will receive an invitation to participate in the census, a nationwide population count, by April 1. In the following months, they will be able to respond online, by mail or by phone, and census workers might follow up to remind them to participate.

Leading up to April 1, state census officials are coordinating outreach initiatives at all higher education institutions in Nevada to ensure college students participate in the process. The reason for this is not just to help the Census Bureau. It will also benefit students, who receive federal funding determined in part by the results of the census, said Chelsea Heinbach, a UNLV librarian.

Federal spending such as Medicaid, the popular Pell grant program, technical college programs and federal direct student loans are all impacted by census numbers, said Heinbach, who sits on the state's Education Outreach Subcommittee for the census. About one-third of all UNLV students receive funding through Pell Grants, which the U.S. Department of Education awards to low-income students.

“More than $6.2 billion per year is decided based on (the census),” Heinbach said. 

In addition to the difficulties associated with Nevada college students living off campus, students don’t always know where they are supposed to be counted — at their parents’ home, whether it’s in Nevada or out of state, or as college residents, Durmick said. Anyone who attends university in Nevada full time, whether they come from out-of-state, a different part of the state or a different country, should be counted in the census tract in which they reside for school, she said.

To help dispel myths about the census and boost student participation, Durmick and her team are developing marketing materials, planning events and setting up computer stations so that students can submit census forms online at all higher education campuses, she said. In addition, UNLV Libraries is organizing its own series of events around the census, said UNLV outreach librarian Rosan Mitola.

“We partnered with the Census Bureau to develop some particular efforts to encourage students to understand why they should take part in the census, why they should be counted, how their count matters, what’s at stake, and the process,” Mitola said.

Because the ZIP code in which UNLV is located is at risk for low census participation, the Census Bureau contacted UNLV Libraries to undertake these special efforts, Mitola said. Not only does the area have many students, it also has a high percentage of residents living below the poverty line; people of lower incomes are less likely to participate in the census as well, according to the Pew Research Center.

The series of events at UNLV Libraries are key for reaching students given that more traditional forms of college student outreach — such as at dormitories — wouldn’t be effective at the commuter-heavy campus, Heinbach said. They are also open to the surrounding community.

“A lot of higher-ed initiatives around getting students to participate take place in dorms. We don’t have the same setup here, so we need to create a more centralized space to encourage students to participate,” she said.

Nearby College of Southern Nevada is not planning the same coordinated events around the census, but the college has been saturated with census materials, said Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor who helped organize a civic engagement event earlier this month that included census information.

“Every event we’re doing now has tabling for the census,” Cosgrove said.

Both the College of Southern Nevada and UNLV have high populations of immigrants, undocumented students and people of color, all of whom are less likely to participate in the census and more likely to be uncomfortable giving out their information to the government, according to Pew. A previously proposed citizenship question, which will not appear on the census, has heightened confusion and fears for the undocumented community in particular.

“For undocumented students, there might be a fear of participating because they aren’t aware of how many laws are in place to protect their privacy and things like that,” Heinbach said.

That’s led UNLV to make outreach efforts intersectional and to dispel the concerns of immigrants and minorities specifically, she said.

“We’re going to turn it into a fun game, like fact or fiction about the U.S. census, both to get students aware that it’s something important that’s coming up and something they should engage with, and also to dispel any myths that might deter participation,” Heinbach said.

Meanwhile, state census coordinators are engaging with high schools, middle schools, elementary schools and child care centers to bring age-appropriate census information to them as well, Durmick said. Children under 5 are one of the most undercounted populations in Nevada and nationwide, she explained.

“We’re going to print thousands of these census activity books and distribute them across the state so we can get children and parents really excited about participating in the census,” she said.

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