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How to Count College Students in the Census, Even When They're Gone

Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire.
Flickr Creative Commons
Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire.

Universities and colleges are sending updated guidance to families on how to fill out the U.S. Census, in light of confusion over student residency during campus closures caused by the coronavirus.

Typically, students living in dorms and off campus are counted by the census as residents of their college town. In New Hampshire, this dramatically increases the population of towns like Keene, Durham, Plymouth, and Hanover, in some cases nearly doubling availability of federal aid and the number of state representatives.

But with many students completing the semester remotely, college administrators and the Census Bureau now have to figure out how to get an accurate count during the pandemic.

How to Count Students Typically Living on Campus 

The bureau says students who have relocated because of the pandemic should still consider their college address their primary residence.

If you’re a parent and your child is living at home because of campus closures, you must mark them on the census form as "usually living elsewhere" for college, the census advises.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

On Wednesday, the University of New Hampshire sent an email to all families clarifying this:

“No matter where you are now, you are to be counted by the census where you would have been living as of April 1 - UNH owned campus housing or off-campus housing - if you had not relocated because of the pandemic.”

The bureau says it will get information from colleges on who was living on campus before the pandemic and add that to the town's final population count.

UNH says it is in the process of doing this, but other colleges say they have not been contacted by bureau officials about the count since suspension of census field operations in March.

Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat, said she is pessimistic that the bureau will be able to conduct an accurate count, or that universities and colleges will be able to prioritize the population count admist the stress of remote instruction.

And this could have a big impact on the process of legislative redistricting next year.

“In the towns of Plymouth, Durham, and Hanover, I think it’s very possible there will be changes in the number of representatives they get,” she said.

How to Count Students Typically Living Off Campus

Students who typically live near campus in private residences present another census challenge: colleges are not responsible for reporting these numbers to the Census Bureau.

There are some exceptions to this. UNH, for instance, is counting students who live in sororities and fraternities, even though the university does not own those buildings.

The Census Bureau had planned to conduct extensive outreach to off-campus students in April and May; some outreach has now gone virtual, but this population may go undercounted in 2020.

If you are a student living off-campus, your household needs to fill out the census to be counted accurately. This is true even if you moved back to your parents’ house for the remainder of the semester.

The census can be filled out online at

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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