Athens Faces Significant Student Undercount In Census

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — With less than a month left until the 2020 census deadline, Athens is facing a significant shortfall in the number of Ohio University students counted.

This is due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic.

Three of the lowest responding census tracts in Ohio are in the city of Athens, in parts of town where off-campus student housing is concentrated, Amber Kohler of the U.S. Census Bureau said Wednesday during a video conference update on census outreach efforts in Athens County.

This matters because the lower the count, the smaller the city and county’s share will be over the next 10 years of the billions of dollars in federal funding distributed nationwide based on population.

The census tract highlighted in orange has a significant concentration of off-campus student housing and a census response rate so far that is about half of the rest of the city of Athens.

Students may not realize that just because they’re not living in Athens right now because of the coronavirus does not mean they shouldn’t complete a census form, which can be done online at the Census Bureau’s website.

Students who would have been living in Athens in April had it not been for the pandemic sending them back home are still considered Athens residents for purposes of the census.

Local officials are concerned that because the students are back home, their parents might mistakenly include them as residents of their households when completing their own census forms.

“The pandemic has created real obstacles for the city of Athens,” Chris Chmiel, an Athens County commissioner, said Wednesday

Getting students to complete the census is especially critical in small college towns like Athens where students represent a high percentage of the population.

Cities, counties and states want high response rates for the census because federal funding for transportation projects, education and other things is distributed to states and communities based on population. Census figures are also used to determine political representation in Congress.

The parts of Athens where student housing is concentrated typically have lower response rates in the census, which is done once every 10 years.

But this year is even worse because of the coronavirus. Most students left town after the university shut down in-person classes in March and haven’t returned.

Most classes are still being taught online, and the earliest more students might be allowed to return to campus is September 28, just two days before the census deadline.

OU and local officials are working together to reach students through email and social media. The outreach includes a video with Athens Mayor Steve Patterson encouraging students to complete the census.

Local officials are also looking for guidance from the Census Bureau on whether they can collect information from landlords about who was living in their student rentals before the university went into lockdown and the students left.