Keeping Up With... 2020 Census

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Erin Ackerman and Karen Brown.

Erin Ackerman is the Social Sciences Librarian at The College of New Jersey, email: She is also a member of ALA’s 2020 Census Library Outreach and Education Task Force.

Karen Brown is a Professor at the School of Information Studies, Dominican University (IL), email: She is also working with ALA on 2020 Census awareness and engagement activities.


The Census, conducted once every ten years, is the constitutionally-required count of every resident in the United States. This count is critical for communities and a multitude of federally-funded programs, including those in higher education. It determines the allocation of over $800 billion for essential programs, such as financial aid (including Pell Grants); improvements to campus buildings, labs, and classrooms; food assistance; the Library Services and Technology Act; Medicare; and numerous social and health programs. Census data determines representation in Congress and the Electoral College, as well as in state and local government. The data is also used by agencies and organizations of all types to establish policy and to plan programs and services. The 2020 Census is a huge and complex undertaking, and it faces several political, budget, and technology challenges. Colleges and universities, including their libraries, can play vital role in ensuring a fair, accurate, and complete count.

College Students – A Hard-To-Count Population    

Historically, certain groups of people have been disproportionately undercounted by the Census. These groups are considered hard-to-count, because the Census Bureau has found it difficult to interview, locate, contact, or persuade them to participate in the Census count. College students are considered a hard-to-count population, primarily because they are highly mobile, may live off-campus as renters, and are typically in the age category of 18-29 years, an age group that has indicated it is least likely to participate in the Census according to a recent Pew Research Center study. [1] Other hard-to-count populations, which may include college students, are rural communities, cultural and linguistic minorities, LGBTQ persons, low-income, New Americans and immigrants, people of color, American Indians and Alaska natives, people experiencing homelessness, and people who distrust the government. Communities, and the institutions and programs they use, are disadvantaged economically and politically if people are not counted.

How Does the Census Work?

Beginning on March 12, the Census Bureau will mail an invitation letter to almost all households in the United States with instructions for responding to the Census. (In a few areas of the country, Census Bureau staff will visit households in person rather than mailing a letter, such as areas without regular postal delivery.) The 2020 Census is the first Census to include, and encourage, the online option. The online questionnaire will allow people to respond on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. The invitation letter will also provide instructions for completing the Census questionnaire by phone or to complete a paper questionnaire, if respondents prefer. Whether people respond online, by phone, or by mail, it should take about 10 minutes to complete, and responses are confidential and protected by law.

The Census Bureau uses other methods for counting individuals in group living quarters, including college dorms. They will also devote three days to counting people who are experiencing homelessness by working with shelter directors, soup kitchens and mobile food vans, and social service providers. 
April 1 is designated as Census Day. Individuals can complete their Census form before April 1, but they should include everyone who will be a “usual resident” of their household on April 1. What does this mean for college students? 

  • College students will be counted in the communities where they go to school and live the majority of the year. 
  • College students who live away from home should count themselves at the on- or off-campus residence where they live and sleep most of the time, even if they happen to be visiting home on April 1, 2020. 
  • Students living in residence halls are part of “group quarters,” and campuses have a designated “residence administrator” for the Census count who will submit the questionnaire directly to the Census Bureau.
  • College students who are living at home most of the time should be counted at their home address. 
  • U.S. college students who are living and attending college outside the United States are not counted in the Census.
  • International students living and attending college in the United States should be counted at the on- or off-campus residence where they live and sleep most of the time.

In April, the Census Bureau will send several reminders to households that have not responded and will follow up in person if needed beginning in May. 

What Can Academic Libraries Do?

Academic libraries are well-positioned on campuses to promote the importance of the Census and partner with groups and organizations to sponsor activities. Libraries can engage their campus in several ways:

  • Publicize the library as a place with computers and Internet access. Students may need a computer to fill out the online Census form. Some colleges and universities can expect local residents to come to the campus library to use the computers. Students may also want to apply for one of the more than 500,000 temporary, part-time Census jobs, which requires an online application. 
  • Spread the word about 2020 Census job opportunities. The Census Bureau will hire 500,000 temporary workers to conduct the count, with an emphasis on hiring staff with language skills and knowledge of local communities. Many libraries have hosted Census recruiters at tables or information sessions. To learn more, visit the Census website or call 1-855-JOB-2020 and press 3.
  • Display posters or exhibits. The Census Bureau offers free downloadable outreach materials.
  • Fight misinformation, disinformation, and scams. Students may have questions and concerns about the 2020 Census, and libraries can provide accurate information. It’s important for students to know that U.S. law strictly prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing personal Census responses with anyone, including law enforcement, courts, or any other government agency. The Census form does not ask respondents about their citizenship and does not ask for social security numbers. The Census count includes every person living in the United States, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. At some college libraries, staff are planning to provide brief guides at reference and information points about completing the Census form.
  • Reach out to campus groups and clubs to raise awareness of the 2020 Census and encourage community service projects to increase Census participation. The library at California State University-Monterey Bay (CSUMB), for example, is part of a campus-wide team, which partnered with the campus Service Learning Institute to train 65 students in September who will work in the local area to promote 2020 Census participation. CSUMB library also facilitated a presentation by their Census Bureau Partnership Specialists to the Faculty Academic Senate, which discussed strategies for faculty to encourage student participation in the Census.
  • Encourage faculty to include Census topics and data in their courses – and provide library instruction to support teaching and learning about the Census.
  • Partner with other area libraries and/or reach out to a Complete Count Committee in your area to join forces on promoting the Census in your communities.
  • Share your library’s ideas and questions about promoting the Census on professional lstservs and social media. For social media, use the hashtag #CountOnLibraries.

The more students know about the Census, how the data are used, and how it impacts them and their communities, the more likely they are to participate. You can find tip sheets and resources about libraries and the 2020 Census on the ALA website.


[1] Cohn, D’Vera and Anna Brown. "Most U.S. Adults Intend to Participate in 2020 Census, but Some Demographic Groups Aren’t Sure." Pew Center for Research. October 18, 2019.

Additional Resources

ALA Census Homepage

ALA Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census

ALA Preparing Your Library for the 2020 Census Webcast

Baker, Gavin. "Washington Hotline: Libraries can ensure everyone counts in the 2020 Census," College & Research Libraries News, 80.2 (2019): 116.

GODOT Facts Count LibGuide

U.S. Census Bureau Homepage

U.S. Census Bureau Complete Count Committees

U.S. Census Bureau Outreach Materials