Iowa City, like other college towns, expects census undercount

Students left town amid the pandemic before the count got underway

A census sign is posted Wednesday in Iowa City. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
A census sign is posted Wednesday in Iowa City. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa City leaders worry a population undercount — confirmed in early reports from the U.S. Census Bureau — will slash federal funding to the growing community.

When counting for the 2020 census wrapped up earlier this month, only 68.5 percent of Iowa City’s estimated population had responded to the national head count, well below the 75.8 percent self-response rate in the 2010 census, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

Iowa’s other state college towns also were below expected counts.

Ames, home to Iowa State University, had a self-response rate of 68 percent on Oct. 17, compared with 77.7 percent in 2010, and Cedar Falls, home to the University of Northern Iowa, had a 73.9 percent self-response rate compared with 79 percent in 2010.

“From when the census kicked off in April, we anticipated we were going to have a lower response rate than we had in 2010,” Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said.

University of Iowa takes extra steps

The April 1 start date for the 2020 census was less than a month after COVID-19 first was detected in Iowa and the University of Iowa suspended in-person classes.

“Once spring break hit, there was a significant drop in students coming back,” Fruin said.

This exodus made the second phase of the census — the nonresponse follow-up — even more important, he added.

“Even if the census takers did not get a response when they went knocking doors, what is the next layer? Did they talk to property owners to get a sense of how many people living in multiunit apartments? There were conversations with the university about their off-campus counts. We really won’t know until they release that data.”

Before COVID-19, the UI submitted to the Census Bureau names and addresses of on-campus students as part of the group quarters survey. Fraternities and sororities were asked to report their own rosters to the Census Bureau.

“Pre-COVID, students who live in off-campus housing that is not designed specifically for students — such as a rental apartment or house — were instructed to respond to the census themselves,” UI spokeswoman Hayley Bruce said in an email.

But this year, with the pandemic making it hard for census takers to track off-campus dwellers, the UI provided the Census Bureau with the names and addresses of those students so enumerators could follow up, Bruce said.

Funding loss expected

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague said losses in federal funding could be significant.

“One missed resident can be $28,000 lost,” he said. “Some of the programs that it really affects are CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds, housing funds, roads, bridges. It wasn’t the greatest year for the census to come out.”

Teague said some residents may have believed misinformation that census data could be turned over to law enforcement or immigration officials — which is illegal. “There was some fear, absolutely,” he said.

One option Iowa City will consider is paying for a special census, Teague said.

Marion officials decided in 2014 to pay the Census Bureau to do a partial special census, which they estimated at the time would cost $150,000 to $160,000. The midway head count turned up 2,800 more people, which resulted in about $2.6 million from 2015 to 2020.

North Liberty’s special census in 2015 reported a 36 percent population increase from 2010, making the city eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars more per year.

The special census program was suspended in 2018, but is expected to start again in 2022.

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