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Did the U.S. Census Bureau undercount students at UND, NDSU? Some say it appears so

And it's not a question that's unique to North Dakota. College-town leaders elsewhere also are concerned by recently released census data.

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A student walks past the Soaring Eagle Sculpture and Garden on the UND campus Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Last spring, as the nation prepared for the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial count, something unthinkable happened. Weeks before the official census date, COVID-19 struck, dampening Americans’ enthusiasm for door-to-door operations and scattering college students off campus and across the country.

It was, quite possibly, the worst thing that could have happened for census accuracy. And as numbers begin trickling out, some college-town leaders are questioning the results.

"To my knowledge, this is the only census that was done in the middle of a pandemic. So it's probably likely that there were more misses this time,” said Kevin Iverson, a demographer with the state Department of Commerce.

The count has been closely watched by leaders around the country. Each resident means more federal money for the state and the community, and any changes in local population means redrawing political maps. And after the last 10 years, North Dakota is expected to see some big shifts.

RELATED: Grand Forks heads for ‘major’ political shift in wake of census numbers

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In Charlottesville, Va. — home to the state’s flagship university — local leaders are worried the census undercounted college students. It’s the same story in State College, Pa., where the community is fretting over a drop of 1,500 residents.

And in college neighborhoods in Grand Forks and Fargo, there’s a similar question: Did the census undercount students at North Dakota's largest universities?

The numbers suggest it might have. Grand Forks is home to legislative District 42, which includes UND and surrounding neighborhoods. Out of all 47 legislative districts, 42 saw the second-biggest drop in population. And in Fargo, District 44 — just alongside NDSU— is a student-heavy area that saw the sixth-biggest drop in population.

That’s despite overall growth in both counties and around the state.

“Working in real estate, I know that, especially near the campus area, there’s a lot of investment properties,” House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, who represents that NDSU-area student district, said. “We were losing single-family housing. I know that people are living there.”

In Grand Forks, students were one of local leaders’ biggest concerns last year as they worked to ensure residents got counted. In one particularly college-friendly bit of outreach, city leaders helped build an Instagram promotion with Deek’s Pizza to boost local counts.

“This is the actual timeline: UND students were sent to all remote (learning) — a lot of them left campus — on March 18, 2020,” Barry Wilfhart, the local Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said this week. “And the U.S. Census, you are supposed to report where you lived, or where you expected to be living, on April 1. Did that have an impact?”

There was special concern for how to count the off-campus students, of which there were more than 10,000. Wilfhart said he signed on to a letter last spring, along with leaders from college towns around the country, asking congressional leaders to adjust for a potential miscount — but that it was too late to find any practical solution. And after a nationally haphazard census, plenty of expert onlookers say it’s plausible that students were undercounted.

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RELATED: Census counting in Grand Forks gets more difficult during pandemic, and it could end up costing federal aid

But there are reasons to be cautious with the data. Iverson points out that important studies examining flaws in the census likely won’t come any sooner than next year. Before that happens, it’s hard to call it an undercount for certain.

And there are some arguments that, especially in Grand Forks, students might not have been undercounted quite as badly as the census’ final numbers make it seem. UND enrollment numbers show that there were about 1,100 fewer students enrolled in on-campus classes in the spring of 2020 compared to a decade earlier.

There’s a similar trend at NDSU. The number of students in off-campus housing attending in-person classes dropped by more than 1,300 from a decade ago. That invites the question: how much of the drop in university neighborhood numbers comes from lower enrollment?

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, vice-chairman of the state’s redistricting committee, said he’s confident in local counts. The numbers show that a large portion of the changes near UND, he said, can be attributed to changing student living conditions — like dorms that are far less populated, or no longer exist.

“It was done," he said of counting local students.

State Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, represents the UND district. He said he’s confident in UND’s outreach efforts to ensure students were well-counted, and said that changes in campus and off-campus housing also could contribute to changes.

Even if there is an undercount, Kreun said, it’s likely not by much.

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"They (university leaders) tracked it pretty darn good. They worked hard at it. I don't know if we can say there's a huge undercount or not,” Kreun said. “At this point, I don't think we can say that … with the change in the way students are being housed, where they're living."

UND leaders deferred comment to City Hall and other local leaders.

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said he, too, has become convinced that the count near UND is more accurate than he’d first thought. His biggest disappointment is with state aid calculations, which will be linked to pre-census estimates of the city’s population, which appear to have been thousands of residents short.

“We’re going to be short, by a conservative estimate, somewhere between $130,000 and $150,000 in state aid, just for 2022,” he said.

Kaelan Reedy, UND’s new student body president, said he’s not ready to speculate on what’s behind lower numbers. But a drop in population is a disappointment, and one that could lower federal spending in the area — to the detriment of students, who are just as much residents as anyone else.

"That's the most unfortunate thing, because I ultimately want the count to be accurate,” Reedy said.

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