2020 census: ‘Think about the community that invests in you day in and day out’

By Mari Devereaux, Managing Editor

Wesley Enriquez

While practicing social distancing and transitioning to online classes, college students have another responsibility that may be getting lost in the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic: the 2020 census.


“The census is foundational to our democracy,” said Marissa Corrente, deputy director of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition. “It only happens every 10 years, and it’s mandated in the Constitution. It’s basically a snapshot of our country at that moment in time.”

Collected population data determines where $675 billion a year in public funding is spent throughout the next decade, Corrente said, from health care to food stamps, schools, roads and other essential pillars of society.

Federal allocations for Pell Grants, financial aid, programming and mental health resources for students attending public and private colleges and universities are based on census numbers.

The census is also used for redrawing local, state and congressional district boundaries, as well as the apportionment process—which ensures each state has a number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that reflects its population size.

According to Election Data Services, Illinois is one of several states projected to lose a congressional seat depending on the results of the 2020 Census due to a population decrease. As of Thursday, April 9, 2.9 million households across Illinois had responded to the census out of an estimated 4.8 million residences.

A Monday, April 13 press release from U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated they are seeking an extension from Congress to deliver final apportionment counts to the president until April 30, 2021, in light of difficulties brought on by the coronavirus. This extension would allow the field data collection and self-reporting process to continue until Oct. 31, 2020.

Corrente said it is critical that everyone is counted accurately to ensure equitable funding and representation, including college students, people in rural communities, non-native English speakers and other historically “hard to count” groups like those who have limited access to the internet or phones.

How college students should fill out the questionnaire

Beth Lynk, Census Counts campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said students displaced by the coronavirus, or COVID-19, should fill out the census according to where they would normally be staying April 1, known as Census Day.

“Think about the community that invests in you day in and day out, where you live and sleep most of the time,” Lynk said. “That’s the community that you want to give back to by participating in the census.”

For the first time in 2020, U.S. residents are able to complete the census online rather than over the phone or by mail.

Only one person should fill out the census for themselves and those they live with, listing their roommates’ names, ages, sexes and races. Despite common fears and myths, the census does not ask for social security, bank account or citizenship information, and the Census Bureau legally cannot release respondents’ answers to other agencies or law enforcement, Corrente said.

Marilyn Sanders, Census Bureau Chicago regional director, said those who would normally be living in university residence halls are automatically counted by college administrators working online with the Census Bureau through a process known as Group Quarters Enumeration. Thus, on-campus students do not need to fill out the census if they had a housing contract as of Census Day.

Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations Lambrini Lukidis said Columbia will take part in the Group Quarters process in the coming weeks as soon as the bureau reaches out.

International students and U.S. citizens normally living in an apartment off-campus must complete their own census, said Kathleen Yang-Clayton, clinical assistant professor with the Department of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Students who usually commute from home should be counted by their parents or guardians when they fill out the household census.


During the 2018-2019 academic year, Columbia students’ education was funded in part by $10.2 million in Pell Grants, nearly $2.3 million in other federal financial aid and $33.2 million in subsidized and unsubsidized government loans, according to Columbia’s annual Fact Book.

Corrente said while students’ individual eligibility and financial need determines if they are eligible for the Pell Grant program, census data is used to decide how much funding goes to the federal Pell Grant program overall.

Serene Arena, a graduate student in the Civic Media program, said the census plays a huge role in students’ quality of life at college and is an easy democratic function in which they can partake.

“What’s happening on a government level … is actually what shapes our cultural and social day-to-day [lives],” Arena said. “The census is one example of something where students can be participating in the process.”

Kierah King, a senior dance major and Student Government Association president, said it is important for students—especially those who are part of underrepresented groups—to fill out the census for proper funding.

King said she has seen a stronger push from other student leaders at Columbia to spread more awareness about the census online than from administrators. But she understands administrators are preoccupied with the current circumstances.

King said she appreciates students who have been urging other students to take part in the census by posting on social media and emailing others.

On April 1, Columbia sent out an email encouraging employees to participate and instructing them on how to fill out the 2020 census.

“If there is an undercount in your area, you may not get your full share of the federal resources,” the email stated. “We are striving for a complete count and hope that all employees will take this opportunity to invest in their communities.”


Matt Ruby, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights 2020 census coordinator, said social distancing measures, lack of medical care and economic hardship will likely negatively affect census response rates.

“This contributes to a feeling of helplessness, that there’s little or no point in participating in something that has such a long-term gain … when there’s these more pressing things going on that are right in front of you,” Ruby said.

Ruby said the communities the coalition works with are now more at risk than they were already to be miscounted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yang-Clayton, who is also the principal investigator of the Illinois Department of Human Services’ census project, said the coronavirus has significantly impacted their outreach capabilities and has pushed them to focus on digital recruitment, such as Facebook Live sessions, virtual phone banks and hashtags on social media.

Sanders said in light of the coronavirus, the Census Bureau has adjusted its schedule, delaying enumeration and non-response follow-up operations. It has also extended the self-response period to ensure both a complete count and the health of its workers and the American public.

Yang-Clayton said the easiest thing people can do for health care workers is to fill out their census because the health care industry is also financed in part by data collected in the census.

“As we’re sitting at home and hoping and praying that our public health system makes it through this crisis, we’re thinking forward around how we can strengthen what we provide to communities across the state,” Yang-Clayton said. “Filling out the census is the most fundamental first step to rebuilding and appropriately funding … for the next decade.”