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Boston Wins Back Student Populations and Others in U.S. Census 2020 Challenge

UMass Donahue Institute a key player in technical support to the Secretary of the Commonwealth

The U.S. Census Bureau has approved a challenge to its undercount of college students living in college and university housing in the City of Boston during the 2020 Census, with a challenge submission totaling 6,026 students more than the 2020 Count. While the updated count will not affect re-districting, the increase will have a subsequent impact on federal resource allocation, planning and public health rates.

The UMass Donahue Institute provided technical support on the Boston challenge and is currently working with Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin’s office to review the Census 2020 counts of persons living in group quarters facilities statewide. The project is assembling and submitting cases to the bureau as they are identified.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities nationwide closed their campuses and transitioned to remote learning just as the nation’s once-per-decade count was gathering momentum. While the Census Bureau specified that college students should continue to be counted in the place where they reside most of the time — or where they would have resided on April 1, 2020, were it not for early closures — the potential for undercounting college students was significant. The initial Census 2020 counts in student-dense areas of the City of Boston indicated that an undercount had in fact occurred.

“Ensuring an accurate count of our student population in the federal census is always a challenge, but the closure of schools in 2020 made conducting a complete count of Massachusetts more difficult than any of us could have expected,” said Secretary Galvin, who served as the 2020 census liaison for Massachusetts. “I am gratified to see the Census Bureau correct their count of Boston residents, to more accurately reflect the city’s 2020 population.”

“It’s no surprise that many of these special populations were miscounted due to the untimely and completely unanticipated emergence of a global pandemic that just happened to perfectly coincide with the 2020 count,” said Susan Strate, senior program manager at the UMass Donahue Institute Population Estimates Program“Not only were census count operations upended from start to finish, but many populations were suddenly and temporarily displaced from their usual residences. We are grateful that the Census Bureau provided the means for correcting for some of these disruptions by standing up a new corrections program, and I am very happy that Massachusetts has been able to take advantage of this opportunity.”

The City of Boston made an official submission to the program on Sept. 15, 2022, including data counts for 41,776 students living in student housing in 2020, which is 6,026 students more than what the Bureau had reported for the city.

While a correction to these populations will not affect redistricting or re-precincting outcomes — which have already been established — it will affect the official annual population estimates produced by the Census Bureau, which in turn affect federal funding allocations, transportation planning and public health rates, to name just a few important considerations. The Boston challenge results will be reflected in the Census Bureau’s Vintage 2023 (July 1, 2023) population estimates for the city, to be released in 2024, and all subsequent population estimates.

Strate is one of the census advocates who worked with the bureau to put the correction opportunity on the table following the 2020 count, citing concerns about temporarily dislocated populations in the state and meeting with the bureau in her capacity as the vice chair of and Massachusetts liaison to the Federal State Cooperative for Population Estimates. 

Recognizing the potential for undercounted populations due to the COVID-19 disruptions to a regular census count, and in response to advocacy from stakeholders, the U.S. Census Bureau developed a new census review program to address issues with the 2020 count: the Post-Census Group Quarters Review Program (PC-GQR).

While dislocated students in Boston may have been the most obvious correction opportunity for the state, the PC-GQR challenge program provides an opportunity for all cities and towns to review and correct undercounts of persons living in “group quarters” facilities, including student housing, correctional facilities, nursing homes, shelters and more. The approved Boston challenge also included data on two correctional facilities showing a combined population of 419 persons over and above what the census had reported. Boston’s census challenge was prepared by the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s Research Division using data from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

To date, the UMass Donahue Institute has worked with the cities of Springfield, Chicopee and Dartmouth to submit challenge cases to the bureau and is in the process of active research and case assembly for seven additional towns, including Bourne, Wareham, Dedham, Middleton, Randolph, Franklin and Wenham.

Municipalities that have a valid and documented challenge case involving a missed or undercounted group quarters facility are encouraged to contact the UMass Donahue Institute for technical support as soon as possible. Any missed or undercounted facility population is eligible for review and correction through the Census Bureau’s Post Census Group Quarters Review Program through June 2023.

Contact: Susan Strate, UMass Donahue Institute,

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