James Madison University students

Members of the James Madison University band perform at Parkway Brewing Company in 2018. College students are one of the hardest communities to count in the census.

Each fall, thousands of kids enter Virginia colleges for their studies. As campuses and their towns across the commonwealth grow, so do some challenges in counting our students.

Schools have points of contact to work with the Census Bureau and their on-campus residences. At Tuesday’s Virginia Complete Count Commission meeting in Richmond, attendees learned why off-campus housing situations can be harder to count.

Students might not know they’re supposed fill out the 2020 census form where they live for the majority of the year. That often means collaborating with several roommates who make up their household — not their parents and home address.

“If you’re going to school in Harrisonburg or Blacksburg or Williamsburg, you’re a citizen there,” said Jared Calfee, executive director of Virginia21, an advocacy group mobilizing young Virginians to engage in state and local politics.

In 2010, Harrisonburg had five of Virginia’s hardest-to-count census tracts. After graduating, students might leave for reasons like a new job. But between censuses, more come in. By fall 2019, James Madison University had more than 20,000 combined undergraduate and graduate students.

“One of the major obstacles we have with students is making it relevant,” said Carah Ong Whaley, associate director at the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, who also serves on the Complete Count Commission.

So how can college students grasp the census’ importance? Whaley shared some efforts her team at JMU and partners are using to increase awareness. One factor is voting in 2020 and the subsequent redrawing of precincts. Students want to be active in the political process and, by giving them ownership of census outreach, they’re helping their peers understand the form’s value.

“Participating in 2020 is important because it’s going to affect their political representation for the next decade,” Ong Whaley said.

Additionally, census data can affect funding for land grant universities. Students are learning their grades depend on it too — for accurate facts and figures in academic studies.

“Your research is only good as the data that you have and the inferences and conclusions that you draw,” Ong Whaley added.

College students do so much good for the commonwealth and will keep doing so over the next decade. That’s why they can’t be left out of the census next spring.

—Chris Gentilviso

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