Weeds still flourish in my garden. Squirrels seem OK. The sun still rises.

Other than that, the COVID-19 pandemic has pretty much rendered everything else abnormal. So, why would the 2020 census count in America’s college towns be any different?

The timing of a once-every-decade population count amid a global pandemic couldn’t have been worse.

Mayors in at least three Indiana cities have questioned their cities’ population counts in the 2020 census, based on presumed undercounts of students attending their local universities. Similar doubts have been raised by city officials in college towns such as Newark, Delaware; Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota; Iowa City, Iowa; Charlottesville, Virginia and others. They suspect the students were undercounted because the census count began in April 2020, just weeks after colleges across the country shifted classes online and sent students home. Some municipal officials also believe the former Trump administration tried to suppress the census counts of certain demographic groups.

In Delaware, the city of Newark saw its population drop, despite an enrollment increase at its local campus — the University of Delaware. That marked just the second population decrease in the city since the Civil War, the Newark Post reported last week.

That’s a long time.

So, Terre Haute has company. Here, the 2020 census calculated the city’s population at 58,389. That marks a 3.9% drop from 2010, amounting to a loss of 2,396 residents, leaving Terre Haute with fewer than 59,000 residents for just the second time since 1910.

When the figures got released in August, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said, “One of our goals is to increase population, and that’s disappointing if [the census count] is accurate, but I don’t believe it is.” Bennett suspects the census undercounted Indiana State University students.

The same concerns arose in Bloomington, home of Indiana University, and Muncie, where Ball State University is located. Bloomington’s population shrank by 1.5% since 2010, while Muncie’s dwindled by 7%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 figures cited in the Bloomington Herald-Times.

Those numbers aren’t just a status symbol or fodder for civic promotions. Policy makers use decennial census results as the basis for doling out billions of dollars in federal funding for crucial public needs like hospitals, schools, roads, emergency response systems, Head Start programs for kids, housing assistance, vocational training grants, home-weatherization grants for seniors on fixed incomes and much, much more. The census-driven distribution of federal funds amounts to an average of $1,673 per Hoosier, according to a George Washington University study. It adds up.

Earlier this week, the Herald-Times reported that Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said that city’s 2020 population count is “not credible.” He told the Herald-Times the city wasn’t ruling out any options, including litigation, and that any action taken would likely be “in conjunction with similarly aggrieved communities.”

On Friday, Hamilton’s communications director, Yael Ksander, said, “Although we know there are numerous university cities in similar situations, we do not have additional information at this time about specific potential collaborations in this effort.”

Terre Haute’s Mayor Bennett said Thursday that his Bloomington counterpart hadn’t contacted him about the census. As for challenging the census outcome through litigation, Bennett said, “We are still discussing if we should consider a legal response or not.”

Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour told the Herald-Times that an undercount of Ball State students was “pretty obvious.” Ridenour wrote that the census should’ve been delayed, given the pandemic complications.

In an August op-ed in the Muncie Star-Press, Ridenour said the census counts of students living on campus weren’t a problem, because those residents are reported directly by the university. Instead, the problems concerned students living in off-campus apartments or houses, who left town in the pandemic shutdown and weren’t there during the April 2020 count.

Census tracts inside both cities showed significant population decreases in areas with concentrations of off-campus housing, the Herald-Times reported.

The overall population decrease in Bloomington “definitely surprised” Matt Kinghorn, senior demographic analyst for the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Census data that would specifically show changes in student population counts between decennial census counts — such as breakdowns by age groups, pinpointing the number of 18- to 24-year-olds — won’t be available until until 2022 or later. “That would really seal the deal,” Kinghorn said of such decisive statistics.

Still, checking the census tracts within a city — those where students tend to live — can offer clues. That’s the case in Terre Haute.

A handful of tracts within Terre Haute contain much of the student housing centers. The borders changed slightly from 2010 to 2020, essentially splitting one tract 10 years ago into two now. The combined population of those tracts stood at 12,793 in the 2010 census, then dipped to 12,010 in the 2020 count.

That decrease of 783 residents in those typically student-centered sectors in the heart of Terre Haute seems to contradict other realities. ISU’s spring enrollment in 2010, when that census count occurred, stood at 9,765 students, according to Tribune-Star archives. The university’s spring enrollment in 2020 was much higher at 11,049.

Census Bureau guidelines called for students to be counted in their “usual residence” on April 1, 2020, or where they “live and sleep most of the time.” Some students who moved back to their hometowns during the pandemic shutdown may have neglected to fill out their own census forms, and were instead included in their parents’ census forms.

When asked for a response to the Indiana mayors’ concerns about undercounts of college students, the Census Bureau public information office supplied previously published explainers of its pandemic-adjusted methods of counting collegians, on and off campus. Those materials also explained that governmental units, like cities, can use the Count Question Resolution program to correct errors, such as wrong geographic boundaries or duplicated addresses.

“The U.S. Census Bureau’s goal each decade is to produce complete and accurate census data,” the Bureau’s response stated. “Counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place is a daunting challenge even under the best of circumstances. Despite facing a pandemic, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges, the 2020 census results thus far are in line with overall benchmarks.”

Yes, “the best of circumstances” doesn’t apply to many aspects of life in 2020, or 2021 for that matter.
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