2020 Census & Student Privacy

The 2020 Census count is critical for determining representation and the allocations of federally funded programs, including those in higher education. Historically, certain groups of people have been disproportionately undercounted by the Census. The U.S. Census Bureau identifies all college students as a hard-to-count population because they are highly mobile, may live off-campus as renters, and often difficult to persuade to participate.

The shift to distance learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak forced students living both on- and off-campus to return home, complicating this year's Census operations. Bureau representatives have begun their outreach to campuses and will continue over the next few months to verify and collect certain directory information on students in group living quarters, including college residence halls, as well as students living in non-college/university-owned housing.

FERPA generally permits such disclosures and we strongly urge all of our members to work with the Census Bureau to provide them with the particular directory information items it is seeking: name, address, and date of birth. However, because directory information must be limited to information that is not generally considered harmful or an invasion of privacy, it cannot include items such as social security numbers, race, gender, or ethnicity.

​AACRAO ​is engaged in conversations with the U.S. Census Bureau and the Student Privacy Office of the Department of Education to ​ensure that colleges and universities can assist in the collection and distribution of information related to students while also complying with long-standing student privacy requirements.

Executive Director Updates

AACRAO Guidance: The Census, Directory Information, and FERPA

Michael V. Reilly |
June 3, 2020
  • Advocacy
  • Compliance and Reporting
  • FERPA
  • census
  • covid-19

Last week, AACRAO hosted a webinar with the U.S. Census Bureau where colleges and universities were informed that the Census Bureau will be contacting institutions and requesting that they provide them with certain directory information on their students. FERPA generally permits such disclosures and we strongly urge all of our members to work with the Census Bureau to provide them with the particular directory information items it is seeking on your students.

As you are aware, directory information items can include: student's name, address, photograph, telephone listing, electronic mail address, date and place of birth, major field of student, grade level, enrollment status, dates of attendance, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, degrees, honors and awards received, and the most recent educational agency or institution attended. However, because directory information must be limited to information that is not generally considered harmful or an invasion of privacy, it cannot include items such as social security numbers, race, gender, or ethnicity. The three directory information items which the Census need are name, address, and date of birth.   

Notwithstanding, we also understand that institutions are cautious about individuals or entities requesting student information under FERPA and, as a result, may limit the items they designate as directory information.  As such, institutions that do not include one or more of the noted items as directory information would not be able to provide the Census Bureau with the item(s) since an institution is limited to sharing only those directory information items which were included in its notification to students. There is, however, a solution to this situation which could still permit institutions to provide the Census Bureau the relevant information needed to complete an accurate Census count. 

 Under FERPA, an institution can change its directory information items at any time, so long as the institution meets the conditions set forth in the FERPA regulations. The requirements, found at §99.37(a), are that the institution gives notice to students of (1) the personally identifiable information (PII) items designated as directory information, (2) the student's right to refuse to let the institution designate those types of information about the student as directory information, and (3) the period of time (i.e., two weeks) within which a student must notify the institution not to include the student's information as directory information. Thus, an institution has the flexibility to revise its directory information policy if it meets the above conditions, which would then allow it to provide the designated information to the Census Bureau on all students, except those who have opted out of directory information. 

Institutions will have until August 7 to submit this information electronically and until August 26 to submit the information in paper format to the Census Bureau for college/university-owned student housing (on and off-campus). In conversations with the Census Bureau, they would request that the information for students living in non-college/university-owned housing follow the same deadlines and will work with institutions during the summer to obtain this information. If an institution is unable to provide the Census Bureau with the requested information because its current directory information policy does not include one or more of the requested items, the August reporting deadlines should provide ample time to notify students of any revised directory information policy. This would then enable the institution to provide the Census Bureau the information needed for a more accurate count. We hope that this guidance is helpful as we all do our best to ensure an accurate Census count during these difficult times.

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2020 Census and FERPA FAQs

Sample of Census Bureau responses to questions related to "Group Quarters Operations"
  • If a student has opted out of directory information, should that student's name appear on the roster?

    No, if a student has opted out of directory information, then that student’s name should not appear on the roster. The Census Bureau will request the room number for that student so that a package can still be prepared for that student.

  • What about international students?

    College students who are foreign citizens living in the United States while attending college in the United States (living either on-campus or off-campus)—Counted at the on-campus or off-campus U.S. residence where they live and sleep most of the time. If they are living in college/university student housing (such as dormitories or residence halls) on Census Day, they are counted at the college/university student housing. Therefore, these student should be included in the group quarters enumeration process.

    The goal of the U.S. Census Bureau is to conduct an enumeration of every person residing in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Island Areas (the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). The U.S. Constitution requires that the Census Bureau not just attempt to offer information or a service to the population (as is the case with other federal government programs like voter registration, Social Security enrollment, and the use of national parks), but that the Census Bureau actually reach and count every person living in the United States and its territories—of all ages, residence statuses, and locations—whether or not they desire to participate, and regardless of whether they are difficult to find, reach, and count.

  • How does this pertain to commuter campuses, i.e., campuses that do NOT have on-campus housing?

    These campuses have no obligation for the 2020 Census if they do not have student living in on campus or off campus housing. The students will be counted at their residence.

  • How will you determine which residence is correct for a student that is reported on campus and in their home state?

    The 2020 Census residence criteria are used to determine the correct residence for various residence situations such as described above. This is why it is important that the Census Bureau receive complete data to be able to perform critical matching. The more complete the information, e.g. legal first and last names or complete DOB (month, day, and year), the more confident Census can be that two records that are linked together are the same person.

  • If using e-response and race/ethnicity and gender information is not included, will the information be considered complete for upload?

    The information will be considered complete if you provide complete “directory information.” Information required to help with non-duplication include Name, DOB or Age, Address of usual home elsewhere (where they live while not at campus housing). The more complete the information, e.g. legal first and last names or complete DOB (month, day, and year), the more confident Census can be that two records that are linked together are the same person.

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