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Census disruptions for counts in college towns

Visha Angelova / Creative Commons

The pandemic’s disruptions to the census meant that a typically rich set of data has some issues, particularly in college towns.

“Normally it's something that you can rely on as being literally the best data available,” said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center. “It's sort of a jubilee.”

But this year, demographers like Lombard need to dig a little deeper into the numbers, especially in places like college towns. University closures could be exacerbating an undercount of college students.

Other issues, caused by measures used to prevent privacy violations by data companies, introduced by the Census bureau also had Lombard taking a closer look at counts in college towns like Williamsburg.

“It could be that the algorithm actually has had a much larger impact on the data than we think,” said Lombard, pointing to Williamsburg. “The number of black residents appears to have gone up almost threefold. We can verify that it's not real because the areas where it is expected to have gone up were William & Mary dorms. We have good data for William & Mary dorms.”

Census counts help determine where government funding is allocated, and it’s also used for drawing political maps during redistricting.

“If you figured it could have been 10,000 Virginia college students counted in the wrong place, it would mean a bit of a shift in political power from college towns to probably suburbs where most of them would have come from,” said Lombard.

If there is a large effect this would be mitigated as time goes on and by demography work, he said.

The Weldon Cooper Center's work helps state legislators tweak where state funds go. And there's also a federal annual count called the American Community Survey to help adjust figures.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.