The Power of the Census

Results from the 2020 census will determine how much support community colleges get. Here's what trustees can do to encourage participation.

It will help determine federal student aid — including the almost $30 billion Pell Grant program — until approximately 2032. It will govern funding for Carl Perkins Career Technical and Adult Education. It will strongly influence federal spending for Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicare. And it will affect the distribution of over $675 billion annually in federal funds, and even more in state funds.

It will govern which states gain and which lose congressional seats in the House of Representatives, and it will regulate the drawing of federal, state, and local legislative districts. Its data will be employed to plan health and education services for people with disabilities, forecast transportation needs, design public safety strategies, develop rural areas, and forecast future housing needs for all segments of the population.

The “it,” of course, is the 2020 Census. And the aforementioned examples constitute only a portion of its federal, state, and local impacts. Illustrative of its broad scope (and with no acknowledgement of singer-songwriter Paul Simon), the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Census Complete Count Committee Guide includes an Appendix A: 50 Ways Census Data Are Used. While not as catchy as Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the Bureau’s “50 Ways” list is an attention-grabbing inventory of programs and decisions hanging in the balance during this decennial undertaking mandated under Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Counting on Trustees to Educate and Engage

As locally elected or appointed officials, community college trustees and their institutions are uniquely qualified and positioned to play a significant role in advancing the interests and well-being of the students and communities that they serve throughout this process. Indeed, two of the nine principles of effective boardspersonship identified in ACCT’s Trusteeship in Community Colleges: A Guide for Effective Governance include the need to support and be advocates for the college, and the responsibility to represent the common good. One of any board’s most powerful contributions to its college lies in the board’s connection to the community it represents. These principles of effective boardspersonship argue for a prominent role for trustees and their colleges in encouraging students and communities to promote and to participate in the 2020 Census count.

James Madison University, for example, has dedicated a page of its website to information about the 2020 Census, on which it states that it “…presents an important opportunity to foster campus-community partnerships to ensure complete counts through education and engagement with some of the hardest-to-count populations in our states, including in rural communities, communities of color, non-English speaking populations and off-campus, first-generation students, students experiencing homelessness, [and] adult, renter and highly mobile students.” Boards would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to promote the importance of census participation while simultaneously educating community members about how census results affect support for the college, and what the college gives back to the community. This is a natural engagement opportunity that comes along only once every 10 years.

Community College Students are Historically Undercounted

Before highlighting how community college trustees and colleges might promote student and community participation in the census count — including a description of efforts in my home state of California — it is important to recognize that students, and especially low-income and students of color, have been undercounted in previous census efforts.

Research into census participation makes clear that those most likely to be undercounted are those who have the most to lose. In the 2010 Census, the Pew Research Center found that education level and age were the biggest predictors of participation in the census. Survey respondents with lower levels of education and income were also less likely to participate. In that same 2010 Census, African-Americans were undercounted by at least 800,000, and one-third of residents under age five who were undocumented were Latinx children, as cited in a Community College Daily article published in September 2019. Another significant barrier to census participation is limited English proficiency. As the institutions of higher education with the largest shares of low-income students, those with limited English proficiency, and students of color, community college students are more likely to be undercounted and as a result to receive fewer resources and services.

One State’s Efforts

In California, where the Department of Education estimates approximately $7 billion in annual funding rests on the results of the 2020 Census, community college trustees and boards are actively collaborating with a diverse coalition of community partners and going far beyond passing local board resolutions encouraging census participation. Trustees in California are capitalizing on established relationships with important local and regional organizations in business, the nonprofit sector, state, local, and tribal government, media, and other influential entities important to this effort. An important resource for such collaborative efforts are Complete Count Committees, which are nationwide regional and local hubs where a broad spectrum of organizations are working collectively to mobilize community resources. A guide to the 2020 Census Complete Count Committee is available at

As the statewide community college membership organization, the Community College League of California is working closely with the chancellor's office, and the statewide foundation for community colleges to create a 2020 Census toolkit for local districts and colleges, student organizations, and affiliated groups that can most effectively tailor information and communication to their respective constituencies. The toolkit includes infographics, presentations, posters, digital buttons and logos, and a diverse array of information and materials distributable and adaptable to different audiences. It is available at

Recognizing that student-to-student advocacy is often the most effective means of communication, the Foundation for California Community Colleges also has organized and is supporting a Census 2020 Student Outreach Ambassadors program that will recruit 50 student ambassadors from colleges in counties with high hard-to-count indexes to conduct outreach from January through May. Student ambassadors are being supported by foundation staff, an on-campus advisor, and each student is being provided with $500 for event costs, materials, a tablet and mobile internet device for onsite census responses. Details are available at

Civic Education and Engagement

Beyond the very real financial, political, and even cultural impacts of the 2020 Census, this decennial effort highlights the very essence of the mission and role of our nation's community colleges. This effort includes education, civic engagement, democracy, equity and inclusion, and our core values, beliefs, and functions as community service-oriented institutions. As community and college leaders, trustees embody the very nexus of local communities and democracy's colleges. The 2020 Census offers all of us an opportunity to educate, support, and engage the multiple and diverse constituencies that we serve.

Larry Galizio, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Community College League of California.

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