It's nearly impossible to live in Vigo County and never encounter a college student.

Nearly 20,000 of them reside in the community. They trudge on sidewalks downtown, towing backpacks and wearing earbuds. They vie for parking spaces downtown, frequent fast-food restaurants and coffeeshops, buy supplies in local stores, perform at sports and musical events, and volunteer at fundraisers and shorthanded nonprofits.

Yet, even a Vigo Countian who, somehow, never crosses paths with a collegian, still benefits from the students' presence in the community.

The once-a-decade federal census count illuminates those benefits to college towns and counties. But those benefits could be diminished by the coronavirus pandemic's disruption of the 2020 census.

College students help fund local schools, social and emergency services, grants for hospitals, reimbursements for doctors, roads and bridges, health care, nonprofit agencies and other needs. That's because the students also are residents of Terre Haute and Vigo County. Thus, they rightfully should be counted as a college town's residents in the U.S. Census Bureau's decennial headcount. The census results determine the amount of federal and state funding a community receives.

And, each resident counted by the census adds an average of $1,800 in federal and state funds for their community, the Census Bureau estimates. College students comprise a hefty chunk of this community's population. The 18- to 24-year-olds — including students and nonstudents — accounted for 19.6% of Terre Haute's population in the Census Bureau's 2019 estimates.

The decennial census is the one that matters, though.

Counting off-campus college students is never simple. They often shift residences from one apartment to another. Nearly all of them are filling out a census form for the first time. Still, concerted efforts by the Census Bureau, the colleges, local officials and volunteers typically help reach most of the students.

Like everything else in 2020, the census didn't unfold typically.

On March 18, less than a week after the Census Bureau launched its count, it suspended its canvassing in the field. Those field operations resumed in May, in phases by regions around the country.

The gap unraveled the coordinated plans by the bureau, colleges and local officials to reach the students.

Bureau guidelines call for students to be counted in their "usual residence" on April 1, 2020, or where they "live and sleep most of the time." Instead of being on campus or in an apartment in the days around April 1, many students were back in their hometowns after colleges shifted to online classes to avoid the spread of coronavirus. Thus, some students may have been counted in their parents' household, instead of their college town.

And, the bureau's door-to-door canvassing had been paused for pandemic precautions.

"In terms of us moving to online [learning] and the census count, it couldn't have happened at a worse time," said Nancy Rogers, vice president for university engagement at Indiana State University.

As the online-learning format continued, ISU used social-media alerts and emails to remind students to complete their census forms as planned. "I feel like we made a really good effort to communicate with students about what to do," Rogers said. Counts of students living on campus at ISU — the county's largest residential college — were highly successful, she added.

Still, it's likely that fewer students living off-campus completed their census forms, as Hautean residents, than if the pandemic disruption hadn't occurred. "There's certainly a chance that happened," Rogers said.

Prior to the arrival of the virus in March, ISU had prepared a multi-layered census awareness campaign for students, involving posters, flyers, social media, emails and informational tables set up at the campus fountain plaza.

"We had a pretty comprehensive campaign, and we were going to focus on April 1," Rogers said. "Of course, we'd all gone home by then." ISU's spring enrollment in 2020 stood at 11,049.

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, which sits outside the city but within the county, also was able to fully count its 500 on-campus students electronically, said Mike King, the school's director of institutional research. Rose-Hulman, on the city's east side, reports that all 1,081 of its residence-hall students and all 301 of its students living in fraternities or sororities, on or off campus, were accounted for in the 2020 census.

Concerns about census undercounts extend beyond Terre Haute and Vigo County. College towns around the country are concerned that an undercount could curtail their ability to fund services and infrastructure. A webinar hosted by the National League of Cities earlier this month discussed the issue, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Local government budgets could take a hit.

"When there is any population loss, there will be the result of losing dollars," Carol Rogers, census liaison to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, told the Tribune-Star last week. A Census Bureau projection last May estimated that Terre Haute's population would shrink by 165 residents from the city's 2010 census total of 60,787.

"However, the census count could show a bigger loss or a gain," Carol Rogers added. "We just don't know yet."

Likewise, Duke Bennett, Terre Haute's mayor, "has no idea" what the census will show. "If it comes back with some crazy number, low, I think a lot of [college towns] will have that issue. They're going to push back," Bennett said Thursday morning.

In 1990, Terre Haute's census count dipped to 57,483 — its lowest level since 1900. It slowly rebounded, thanks to an expansion of the federal prison in 2005 (inmates count in the local population), and finally topped 60,000 again in 2010.

The rate of Vigo Countians self-responding — those who complete the forms without reminders — was 65.1% in 2020, Carol Rogers said, down slightly from 70.3% in 2010. Still, there's a chance the bureau's follow-up efforts to reach residents — of any age — who didn't initially self-respond succeeded. If so, the overall rate of Vigo residents completing the census could rise to 95% or higher.

Vigo County Commissioner Brendan Kearns assisted with the county's census efforts. "In the very beginning, I was excited and enthused about it," he said. Then the pandemic hit, "and everything went sideways."

The Census Bureau's pause went on for weeks. Then, the field counts resumed, with an extension of the final deadline. Then, the Trump administration stopped the count two weeks early in October, contending in court that it needed time to meet the year-end census completion deadline. On Thursday, the bureau announced state and local governments will likely receive census results by July, nearly six months after the prescribed Dec. 31 deadline, to fix data irregularities, The Associated Press reported.

Kearns fears that Vigo County's population will be undercounted. Census figures determine federal and state funding to maintain the county's 860 miles of roads, for example.

"My concern is that many of our services and agencies will not get the funding that is needed to adequately serve our population," Kearns said.

Yes, college students and every other resident matter to each of us, and to the community, in many ways.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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