In early April, while students at Stony Brook University were enjoying their spring breaks with family and friends, a group of 30 census workers spent four days in a conference room in Mendelsohn Quad filling out official, constitutionally mandated census forms for the campus’ 9,000 residents.
Yet despite the massive undertaking, there was never any disclosure made to the students that the census was being filled out on their behalf. Nor does it seem there was any desire on the part of the university to engage and involve the campus community in the process at all.
Census officials from the local Ronkonkoma field office were provided with records of every student living in dormitories on campus, according to Alan DeVries, Associate Director of Residential Programs.
“They came with an authorization for specific data contained in our housing database and I provided them with rosters that did not include student ID,” he said via email.
The census, which is conducted every ten years, is a series of questions aimed at determining just how many people are currently residing in each state, as well as the demographic makeup of the nation. Figures compiled by the U.S Census Bureau dictate the distribution of over $400 billion in federal funding, as well as representation in Congress.
Traditionally, the bureau mails census forms to every home address in the country. Families then fill out one form and mail it back to their regional office. But for college students living away from home, the process is different. Instead of being counted on their parents’ census forms, students are usually counted using the census’ “group quarters operation.”
“We started the group quarters program for people who live in places not considered housing units,” said Patricia Valle, an Assistant Regional Manager at the New York regional census center. That includes places like nursing homes and prisons in addition to colleges and universities. Unlike the standard ten question census form mailed to millions of homes, the group quarters census form asks for less information and is used to gather accurate counts quickly. The form asks for name, age, date of birth, race or origin and gender.
The option of conducting a group quarters enumeration instead of door to door enumeration is left up to individual campuses, according to Valle. Since the group quarters method relies on official—and, generally, confidential—records kept by the university, they must obtain authorization from the administration. Often, universities actually prefer the group quarters method, says Valle, as the prospect of dozens of census workers patrolling dormitories for days raises concerns about security and privacy.
“We ask each administration ‘What is the best way to enumerate on a college campus?’” said Yolanda Finley, a spokeswoman for the New York regional census office. “The directive on how to enumerate would have to come from the university.”
According to university spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow, however, Stony Brook was never given any alternative to the group quarters process.
“At no time was the University offered the opportunity to use any approach other than a group census,” she said via email. “Had the option been presented to do it another way we would have implemented it, but that was not the case.”
But those claims are strongly disputed by the regional census office.
“There were many conversations,” said Valle. “We offered the option of doing this door to door.” If anything, she added, the census would have recommended direct communication with the campus community.
“We always prefer to go door to door,” she said.
“A recommendation was made by administrators to conduct a group quarters enumeration and not go door to door,” added Finley.
Valle said that conversations were held with Alan DeVries on multiple occasions, dating back to last year.
“In September ’09 we began identifying natural targets for group quarters operations,” said Valle. From there, advance units were dispatched to begin laying out the framework at each group quarters location. At Stony Brook, a coordinator was dispatched to campus in February to prepare for the census.
DeVries was the point of contact for the census this year, but it was unclear whether the decision to use the group quarters method came from him or someone else at the university.
The biggest question remains why the enumeration process was kept a secret. There appears to have been no significant effort made by the university to inform students that they were being counted. After speaking with roughly 100 students who reside in the dorms, exactly zero knew that the census was ever here.