Confusion over what data schools can provide for 2020 Census

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ORLANDO, Fla. The U.S. Census Bureau this week starts its process of counting students living in college-run housing, but there’s confusion over what demographic information university officials can share with the agency.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education said in a memo to schools that they couldn’t, if asked, provide information about students’ sex, race and Hispanic origin for the 2020 Census. Now the department says schools are able to furnish such data if they strip away anything that could identify a student.

The department’s new position was issued last week in a revision of a memo it sent out last month to universities about how students living in college housing should be counted.

The 2020 Census form “asks for information about the student’s sex, Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, and race,” said the original memo issued on Jan. 14. “However, school officials may not disclose this information, without prior written consent from the student.”

The revised memo says schools can furnish the demographic information provided “such data is de-identified.”

The memo’s author, Kala Suprenant, acting director of the Student Privacy Policy Office, and the agency’s press office, didn’t immediately respond Sunday to emails inquiring about the reason for the change. The revised memo noted that the office had received questions from universities about the earlier memo.

Much is at stake: the 2020 count will help determine the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats each state gets.

The last Census in 2010 found more than 2.5 million students living in dorms or on-campus fraternity of sorority houses, the largest segment of what the Census Bureau refers to as “group quarters,” which also include prisons, jails and nursing homes.

And because of the difficulty in counting students, the Census Bureau will start reaching out to college campuses this week to collect information about student housing. The 2020 count started last month in rural Alaska, and the rest of the nation won’t begin participating until mid-March.