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Census Bureau to review potential miscounts of institutions

The U.S. Census Bureau will allow local governments to ask for reviews of institutions counted in the 2020 census, the agency announced this week.

Problems with institutional counts for places such as college dorms, nursing homes and prisons have drawn 34 detailed complaints from cities, states and their advocates. Many officials have asked for ways to correct errors that should have been picked up during review processes that were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Governments can file cases starting June 6 and continuing through June 30, 2023, and the bureau said it will respond to each case within 90 days. More instructions are available here.

College dorms frequently posed a problem since students typically left dorms and went home at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, but were supposed to be counted at school.

However, the census review won’t help with issues such as college students living in private rentals that are not classified as dorms—a common problem for college towns that complained of low counts, or the many cities that felt their overall numbers were too low.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Connecticut-based consultant working on the undercount problems with several cities, said it’s disappointing that the program wasn’t expanded to other potential miscounts outside of institutions, which are known as “group quarters” by the census.

“I'm glad the Census Bureau recognized that the group quarters count is likely incomplete in many areas and that there needs to be a fix,” Lowenthal said.

“Beyond this new program, the bureau really must find a way to mitigate the more general undercounts including off-campus student neighborhoods,” she added.

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The new program will help fix institutional counts for future estimates, which the bureau issues annually between its full census each decade. Any corrections won’t, however, affect official counts used for redistricting.

“At least we’ll have a better base going forward into 2030,” said Iheoma Iruka, census adviser for the National Urban League, adding that some of the nation’s Black population may have been undercounted at historically Black universities and other institutions.

“It’s good we’re going deeper into the data to see where there are undercounts that could affect funding for these groups,” Iruka said. “Hopefully this will be the first of many reviews they do.”

Twenty-nine governments have filed challenges under a different program, the Count Question Resolution program, most recently Austin, Texas, and Callaway, Minnesota, on May 25. That program is specifically for mapping problems that may have caused buildings to be counted in the wrong place.

For instance, the Tennessee state data center found a state prison that had been misplaced, causing a population drop for Whiteville, and Oregon found a similar mix-up with a federal prison in Sheridan.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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The census review won’t help with issues such as college students living in private rentals that are not classified as dorms—a common problem for college towns that complained of low counts.