Come the 2020 census, West Lafayette will have an opportunity to increase its apportioned government funding as a result of above-average population growth in the last decade. But the number of Purdue students who participate will be a deciding factor in whether the city collects an honest count.
For most college students, 2020 represents the first occasion their participation is expected. City official Bryce Patz, who is coordinating citizen and business outreach, said students living in dormitories will be instructed how to respond by their resident assistants. But students living off-campus can be a challenging demographic to reach.
“Typically, parents would feel if they have a student away at college that they are still part of their household,” said Ellissa Johnson, deputy regional director. “But it’s about educating parents that the students are counted at the University or wherever they reside while attending that college or university.”
A primary concern for U.S. Census Bureau partnerships specialist Heather Maddox is coordinating with community officials and business owners to comprehensively target college students, ranked on the census website as the sixth most difficult group to count. She stressed that Census Day, April 1, is designed to be a snapshot of where people live the majority of the time.
Maddox’s role as liaison to West Lafayette has required that she meet with city officials like Patz. He said the city plans to garner more student responses with a new online self-reporting option.
Traditionally, responses have been authorized to occur by phone or by mail. For the first time, people can securely fill out the required information online. Beginning in mid-March, a series of invitations will be addressed to each owner or renter informing them of the option to complete an online census form. Although April 1 is the official census day, anyone who misses it will have the option to reply until May.
“As we urbanize, self-reporting provides a way to obtain that information without going door-to-door,” Patz said. “It would be very difficult to get a headcount, especially in this community, where students are in and out of classes so they might not be home.”
Johnson believes the online option will be instrumental in the nationwide effort to appeal to the sensibilities of college students, who have been documented in Bureau-led focus groups to prefer activities that are “fast, easy and quick.”
Still, up to 40% of respondents will neglect to respond using the three self-reporting options, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. The bureau coordinates a ground game, hiring workers — known as enumerators — to visit individual addresses and prevent citizens from slipping through the cracks when final counts are being tallied.
These door-to-door jobs offer flexible scheduling for students and other community members in need of work, Johnson said, with pay rates ranging from $18.50 to $25 per hour, according to an official U.S. Census Bureau memo.
Following the annexation of Purdue in 2014, the West Lafayette city council passed a resolution to upgrade its classification from Class 1 to Class 2 city. The change signaled that the population had surpassed 35,000 people after accounting for the new segments, though the 2010 census pinned the number just below 30,000.
Purdue has been a major driver of growth in West Lafayette in the past several years. The University has experienced record-high enrollment each year since 2014, according to data collected in 2019’s Tippecanoe County Student Rental Report. The number of total students has increased by roughly 1,000 in each of the past five years, with a record high of 44,551 reported in fall 2019.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the base number of people living in West Lafayette has grown by approximately 15% since 2010, which outpaces the average growth rate for the state of Indiana — 3.8% — during the same period. Tippecanoe County is among the five fastest-growing Indiana counties over the past decade.
“The biggest difference is the high-rises that make up the new city downtown, the new State Street,” said Peter Bunder, president of the West Lafayette City Council. “It adds several thousand people to the census. ... The big change is that denser population.”
For West Lafayette and other municipalities, ensuring an accurate population count during the decennial census would mean proper planning of resources needed to ensure adequate housing, reliable public transportation and proportionate political representation.
Bunder first publicly stressed the unique importance of the 2020 census in a forum prior to last year’s municipal election. His argument is two-fold: the increased population should warrant additional government funding and a southwestern shift of West Lafayette’s center should be reflected in revised voting districts.
Political representation changed mid-decade with Purdue’s incorporation into the city. It resulted in the creation of a new city district, District 3 — dubbed “the student district” — that is currently represented by Shannon Kang, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts. At age 19, she is the youngest-ever West Lafayette city councilor and embodies enhanced representation for younger members of the community.
When the six city districts are redrawn based on the census data, Bunder expects the increased population density in the State Street area to be pertinent. The new districts would comprise a more balanced composition of voters vouching for candidates to represent their interests.
Bunder cited the national discussion taking place about the most efficient methodology to map constituencies in densely-populated cities. In past censuses, West Lafayette’s count could be collected by knocking on doors and receiving in-person responses, but that reality is fading as more people opt to live in high-rise buildings.
The city councilor said he expects the census to fairly represent new growth, despite the inherent difficulty in counting students who are both transient and unfamiliar with the process.
“We’ve never had this growth,” Bunder said. “It’s a nice problem to have, but we’ve never had to count people in high-rises. It will be interesting to see how this works out.”