A Student’s Guide to Understanding the U.S. Census

Soon the 2020 U.S. Census will be sent out to everyone living in America. Unsure what the Census is or how to fill it out? Here’s our guide to help you navigate this important national survey.

The last time the U.S. Census was sent out, I was 11-years-old. I’ve never filled out the survey, nor have I really ever given it much thought. So when I started hearing from family and co-workers that the Census would be sent out spring 2020, I was a little panicked. What do I do when I get it? What’s on it? What actually happens with my information when I send it in?

After my flurry of questions, I soon realized the majority of my undergraduate peers at Champlain College haven’t taken it either, and that we could all probably use a few helpful tips to get us through Census season.

The Census can be intimidating and confusing for college students, but don’t fear—we created a list of tips and information to help you navigate your way through the 2020 Census.   

Read our 2020 Census FAQs here.

The Census will be arriving in the mail soon! Make sure to check your mailbox at the mailroom in the Commuter Lounge in CCM.

What is the Census?

Conducted and sent out by the federal government and the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Census collects information every ten years about America’s growing and changing population in order to inform federal practices, community services, and other national programs and support systems.

The survey can be filled out online, by mail, or via phone. The information you provide and the national data collected then helps the federal government determine how many seats each state should fill in the House of Representatives, and what types of federal funding your area needs. As stated by the U.S. Census Bureau: 

“Over the next decade, lawmakers, business owners, and many others will use 2020 Census data to make critical decisions. The results will show where communities need new schools, new clinics, new roads, and more services for families, older adults, and children.”

You can start taking the 2020 Census starting March 12. If you want to learn more about where the data goes and how it is used, check out this informative page on the U.S. 2020 Census site.

By filling out the Census, you help the local and federal government determine resources needed in your community, such as funding for infrastructure, schools, and other important programs.

Why should I fill it out?

The data you and your community provide can help fund future social services in your area. If you wish to see improvements in areas such as your local schools, infrastructure, grants for community mental health services, and other allocations, filling out the Census is an important part of making these things happen. Just like voting for representatives in your local and federal government that support ideas and initiatives in which you believe, the Census is another important tool to help create change. 

In addition, you are required by law to fill out the Census. Read more about the rules behind completing the Census here.

What to expect on the survey?

The Census will only ask you nine questions about your current living situation as of “Census Day,” April 1, 2020. Everyone will be asked to provide: their name, relationship to the Respondent (explained below), sex, age, date of birth, and race and ethnicity.

If you live in an off-campus apartment or home, the person filling out the survey in your home will be considered Person One, or the Respondent. They will complete the survey for everyone in that living situation, and fill in additional questions about whether the home is owned or rented, how many people live in the residence, if additional people stayed there on April 1, and whether or not those additional people typically live somewhere else.

It’s important to note you can leave some questions blank, if needed. For example, if you do not see your gender identity listed on the Census (the Census only lists “male” and “female” as options), you can opt to leave that portion of the Census blank.

The Census will never ask for your social security number, for money or donations, for information on your political affiliations, or banking information. Plus, all of your answers will remain confidential as the Census is bound by law to protect your information. 

Don’t worry—the survey itself should only take two to five minutes to fill out. It’s amazingly quick and easy. You can check out a sample of the survey here.

Live in a Champlain College residence hall for most of the year? The Census will ask you to list Champlain College as your main residence.

Filling in college-specific information

The Census focuses a lot of its questions on where you live and who lives in your household. As a college student, you may be confused about where you should list yourself as a resident. Here are the quick facts: 

  • If you live at home with your parents/guardians and commute to campus, you should count yourself in your parent’s household. 
  • If you live away from your parents’/guardians’ home, you should be counted at the off- or on-campus location where you sleep most of the time, even if you are at your parents’/guardians’ home on April 1, 2020. 
  • If you are a U.S. citizen studying abroad in another country at the time the Census is sent out, you do not have to fill out the Census.
  • International students attending college in the U.S. should be counted at the off- or on-campus residence where they sleep most of the time. 

If you live in an on-campus residence hall, or in an apartment at 194 Saint Paul Street, the U.S. Census will define you as living in a “group quarter.” This means that the owner of the quarter—in this case Champlain College—will help the Census Bureau gather information about how many students live in each quarter and other helpful facts. You will not have to fill anything out personally. For more information about what a “group quarter is,” check out this page

If you live off campus in a student-heavy neighborhood, you may see a few additional enumerators (Census employees) visit your area. They may be asked to do extra counting and follow-up interviews to make sure the Census collected the correct data about student-heavy towns.

Just like if you live in a Champlain College dorm, if you live in an apartment at 194 Saint Paul Street for most of the year, the Census will ask you to list Champlain as your main residence.

Debunking census myths

The most common myths around the Census are: 

  1. I won’t be counted if I don’t respond
  2. My information will be leaked/or shared 
  3. My information will be used to hurt or incriminate me in some way

First, know that you will be counted by the Census. If you don’t respond, you will continue to receive surveys. If you don’t respond to those follow up surveys, a Census worker will begin checking in with you starting May 27, to ask you to participate and will continue to check in on you. The Census is required by law, so it is best to respond to the survey you are sent right away to avoid follow-up visits. 

Second, your information will not be leaked or shared. Your information will remain protected as the U.S. Census Bureau is sworn by law to protect your information. Your survey will be used only to help compile Census data, and you will never be personally named on a public data sheet. 

Lastly, the Census is not used to harm or incriminate participants. Title 13 prevents the U.S. Census Bureau from sharing your information with other government agencies such as immigration offices or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 

Student employment opportunities

Finally, if you are interested in following a career path in the government, having an experiential learning opportunity with the Census while you’re still an undergrad is a great way to start building your resume. 

The Census Bureau offers multiple paid internship and fellowship opportunities for students. You can make up to 20 dollars an hour working for the Census. If this sounds interesting to you, you can learn more by visiting this webpage.  

The U.S. Census Bureau recruits students for internships who are majoring in the following (but not limited to) areas of study: Economics, Statistics, Business Administration, Marketing, Finance, Sociology, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Information Science.

Do you feel ready for Census season? If you still have questions about the U.S. Census, you can look through the Census Bureau’s website, or ask a parent or guardian about their experiences with the Census. If you have friends who want to know more, make to share this article with them. 

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