Privacy law may make students harder to count for census

Posted at 10:31 AM, Feb 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-02 10:31:26-05

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- A student privacy law will complicate the U.S. Census Bureau's ability to get complete information about students living in college-run housing for the nation's once-a-decade head count, according to a warning the U.S. Department of Education memo has sent to universities.

Because of the decades-old federal privacy law, university administrators won't be able to disclose students' sex, race or Hispanic origin, if asked. Three questions on the 2020 Census form seek that information. The university officials also can't disclose any information if students have opted out of releasing even basic details about themselves.

"In short, we are not able to provide all the info requested," said Leon Hayner, an associate dean of students at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, which has 1,200 students living on campus. "They're not going to get everybody. Some information we simply can't disclose."

Todd Graham, a demographer in St. Paul, Minnesota, said he's surprised that the Census Bureau and the Department of Education didn't work out some remedy to the information-sharing in the decade since the last decennial census in 2010.

"I think they haven't thought about it for 10 years, and what happens when people don't think about things for 10 years is, it surprises them," Graham said.

The education department memo, sent two weeks ago, warned university administrators that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, students need to provide written consent before information from their records can be shared, but an exception is made for what is called "directory information." Directory information includes facts that often are found in student handbooks or yearbooks, such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, activities and dates of attendance.

That type of information can be shared by a school representative, such as a college dean, if a student hasn't filled out the census questionnaire. However, the privacy law forbids the school representative from sharing information about students' sex, race or Hispanic origin without previous written consent, and the school can't provide any information about students who have opted out of sharing directory information.

The 2010 count found more than 2.5 million students living in dorms or on-campus fraternity of sorority houses, the largest segment of what the Census Bureau refers to as "group quarters," which also include prisons, jails and nursing homes.

The Census Bureau is giving campuses three ways to fill out the forms. A census taker can drop off paper forms to a university liaison who will distribute them to students, and then the students will return them in sealed envelopes so the liaison can give them back to the census taker. A census taker can knock on doors in the dorm or house and personally interview residents, the most costly method. Or, a university representative can fill out the form for everyone living there using administrative records -- the most efficient method -- but the information can't include basic information about sex, race or Hispanic origin and it misses students who chose to be incognito when it comes to directory information.

In 2010, more than a third of students in college housing were counted through administrative records provided by the university.

"The data that comes from administrative records is never as accurate as information collected directly from individuals and households," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former top congressional aide who specializes in the census.

Students who live off-campus can fill out the forms as those in other households would.

In a statement, the Census Bureau said it expected to get most of its information about on-campus students from the "drop off/ pick up" method. Privacy laws won't prevent the Census Bureau "from conducting its decennial census of residents living or staying at a campus facility as of Census Day, April 1, 2020," the statement said.

The 2020 count will help determine the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats each state gets.

Counting college students is tricky since it can be hard to track down students in group housing. Students sometimes leave campus as the school semester winds down during the count and students often don't know if they should answer the form or let their parents do it back home. The Census Bureau says students should be counted where they live, which in most cases is where the students go to school.

Officials with two of the nation's largest campuses -- the University of Central Florida in Orlando and the University of Florida in Gainesville -- said they were still in the process of determining how students in college housing would be counted.

This is the first year the Census Bureau is encouraging a majority of respondents to answer the once-a-decade questionnaire online, although they still can answer by telephone or by mailing in a paper form.

But students living in college housing, perhaps the group most likely to answer questions online, will be given paper forms. Cutbacks in research and testing for group quarters led to that decision, Lowenthal said.

Because of the difficulty in counting students, the Census Bureau will start reaching out to college campuses next week to collect information about student housing. The 2020 count started last week in rural Alaska, but the rest of the nation won't begin participating until mid-March.