Student Union Plaza

The plaza outside the Oklahoma State University Student Union normally buzzes with activity but sat empty in spring 2020 after the university declared it was shutting down the campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

STILLWATER — Officials from some smaller college towns seem to have faced greater than normal challenges getting a complete count in the 2020 U.S. Census when students left campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic right before the count took place.

Stillwater has long hoped to grow its population above 50,000, which local officials have said would change the way funding flows to the city. It would also put the city on the map for different businesses looking to establish new locations, they said.

It was a goal the city — counted at 45,688 in 2010 and estimated at 50,299 in 2019 — seemed poised to achieve. But the 2020 count came in at 48,394.

Stillwater isn’t alone.

A certain degree of undercounting is expected. On Nov. 2, the Associated Press reported an estimated 1.6 million people were missed in the last census, a smaller undercount than projected given hurdles posed by the pandemic and natural disasters.

Local officials in Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, also believe their count was short after the U.S. Census Bureau showed the city gaining just 17 people since the 2010 census.

The 2020 count for Athens was 23,849 people, more than 1,000 below the 2019 estimate, Daniel C. Vock of Higher Ed Dive reported in October.

City officials told Vock that drop could result in a loss of $16 million over the next decade in federal Community Development Block Grant money.

He noted that college and local officials have been bracing for low census counts since COVID-19 started spreading and students left campus.

Many smaller cities with colleges find themselves in similar situations. But they aren’t sure how to address it.

Stillwater City Manager Norman McNickle said city officials have been told Stillwater would have to hire its own census takers if it decides to pursue a recount.

That could be cost prohibitive, McNickle said.

As Vock reported, officials from the borough of State College, home of Penn State’s flagship campus, are in the same boat.

They have said the borough would like financial help if it pursues a recount, because the Census Bureau currently requires municipalities to pay for those challenges with costs as high as $200,000.

Like Stillwater, East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University had hoped to break the 50,000 resident threshold in the latest census, which would make the city eligible for more kinds of federal grants. But instead, its population dropped by almost 1,000 from the 2010 count, Vock wrote.

Other college towns like Bloomington, Indiana, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, also claim they were undercounted and plan to appeal the census results to avoid losing federal funding and status, Johnathon Edwards reported for Washington Newsday.

Nothing can be done about a potential recount, regardless of the cost, until January, McNickle told the News Press.

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