College and university students often have two “homes” - the parental home and the on-campus dormitory or off-campus apartment or other housing. Where should they be enumerated? This question reaches to the heart of the basic enumeration standard first established by Congress in the 1790 census act that each person was to be enumerated at their "usual place of abode." This is the place the person lives and sleeps most of the time, which may be a totally different place than their voting residence, legal residence, and so forth, that are established by other standards.
The enumeration of college students was not a "problem" from 1790 to 1860 since the official census day was in the summer (August, 1790-1820, or June, 1830-1860) when schools were typically not in session. By 1800, only 37 U.S. colleges or universities had been established; by 1860 there were around 380. In addition, the number of students enrolled in institutions of higher learning was relatively small; there were about 63,000 in 1870. By 1950, that number had grown to nearly 2.3 million. (This article will use the term "college" to include "university.")
The 1850 census instructions were the first to mention college students: "Students in colleges, academies, or schools, when absent from the families to which they belong, are to be enumerated only as members of the family in which they usually boarded and lodged on the 1st day of June." (Emphasis added.) This instruction placed the student's usual abode at their "college" address if there on June 1, the official census day.
College students were next mentioned in the 1870 census instructions under "Place of Abode" directions: "… children and youth absent for purposes of education on the 1st of June, and having their home in a family where the school or college is situated, will be enumerated at the latter place." Thus, students continued be enumerated at their college residence location.
1880 and 1890 Censuses
The 1880 and 1890 census instructions to enumerators flipped in the opposite direction by making the assumption that college students would and should be enumerated at the parental home: “In the case of boarders at hotels or students at schools or colleges, the enumerator can, by one or two well-directed inquiries, ascertain whether the person concerning whom the question may arise has, at the time, any other place of abode within another district at which he is likely to be reported.” (Emphasis added).
The 1900 census instructions in paragraph 86 appear to flip back to the "enumerate at school" standard of 1850 and 1870 by simply indicating without further elaboration that "all persons having their usual places of abode" in colleges and other institutions should be enumerated there:
86. Name of institution. Whenever an institution, such as a prison, jail, almshouse, hospital, asylum, college, convent, or other establishment containing a resident population, is to be enumerated, the full name and title of the institution should be written on the line provided therefor at the head of the sheet, and all persons having their usual places of abode in such institution," whether officers, attendants, inmates, or persons in confinement, should then be entered consecutively on the schedules.
1910 and 1920 Censuses
The 1910 and 1920 census instructions dug into the weeds of the college student problem in several paragraphs after laying out the definition of "usual place of abode." Considered in their entirety, each college student was normally to be enumerated at the parental home unless they regarded the student residence as "home."
45. Usual place of abode.—The law provides that all persons shall be enumerated at their "usual place of abode" on April 15, 1910 [or January 1, 1920]. This means the place where they may be said to live or belong, or the place which is their home.
46. As a rule the usual place of abode is the place where a person regularly sleeps….
47. Residents absent on census day.—There will be a certain number of persons having their usual place of abode in your district who are absent at the time of the enumeration. These you must include and enumerate, obtaining the facts regarding them from their families, relatives, acquaintances, or other persons able to give this information. Thus if a member of any family in your district is temporarily away from home on a visit, or on business, or traveling for pleasure, or attending school or college, or sick in a hospital, such absent person should be enumerated and included with the other members of the family. But a son or daughter permanently located elsewhere should not be included with the family.
48. In the great majority of cases, however, it is more than likely that the names of these absent members of the family will not be given you by the person furnishing the information, unless particular attention is called to them. Before finishing the enumeration of a family you should in all cases, therefore, specifically ask the question as to whether there are any such absent members as above described.
49. Classes not to be enumerated in your district.—There will be, on the other hand, a certain number of persons present and perhaps lodging and sleeping in your district at the time of the enumeration who do not have their usual place of abode there. These you should not enumerate unless it is practically certain that they will not be enumerated anywhere else. As a rule, therefore, you should not enumerate or include with the members of the family you are enumerating any of the following classes: …. Students or children living or boarding with this family in order to attend some school, college, or other educational institution in the locality, but not regarding the place as their home….
57. Students at school or college.—If there is a school, college, or other educational institution in your district which has students from outside of your district, you should enumerate only those students who have their homes or regular places of abode in your district. (Emphasis in italics; bold indicates italics in original text.)
The 1930 census instructions closely followed the text of the 1910 and 1920 instructions (but with different paragraph numbers). However, the revised “Students at school or college” text now alerted enumerators to the fact that some students might have no other home than their college residence.
68. Students at school or college.—If there is a school, college, or other educational institution in your district which has students from outside of your district, you should enumerate only those students who have their regular places of abode in your district. This will include students who live with their parents, permanently and regularly, in your district, together with certain others who have no homes elsewhere. Especially in a university or professional school, there will usually be a considerable number of the older students who are not members of any family located elsewhere and who will be omitted from the census unless you enumerate them. You should make every effort to find and enumerate all such persons.
In planning for the 1940 census, the Census Bureau undertook a small study of the completeness of enumeration of college students in the 1930 census who attended the University of Wisconsin (at Madison). On January 17, 1939, staff members Charles Ellison, Robert Fluno, and Janet Meditch reported the results. They used a sample of 80 students (55 men, 25 women) whose home addresses in the 1930 university directory were Ashland, Two Rivers, or Watertown, Wisconsin, all towns of about 10,000 population. As a very small sample, the results of the study were not conclusive. Despite having home addresses, it was still sometimes difficult to match the student with their “home” family because the parents’ names were not known. They found that:
- 10 percent of the students were not enumerated anywhere.
- Students who lived further away from Madison were more likely to be omitted from the census than those whose hometowns were nearer to Madison.
- Male students were more likely to be omitted than female students.
- Underclassmen were more likely to be omitted than upperclassmen.
- One person, a student nurse, was enumerated both at home and the university hospital despite instructions to enumerators that student nurses were only to be enumerated at the hospital where they lived and trained.
- Generally, omission of college students was more likely than duplication - except in the case of student nurses.
|Statistical Page from Study of the Enumeration of College Students at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1930 from "Binder 36-L - Enumeration of Students" online at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/205683298|
Due to the inconclusive nature of this small study, January 26, 1939, Morris H. Hansen, Chief of the Statistical Research Division, suggested that the Census Bureau undertake a more extensive nationwide sampling of college student enumeration in the 1930 census in order to revise and improve instructions to enumerators. However, a more extended study was likely not undertaken since the 1940 census instructions to enumerators concerning college students were very similar to 1930 but with minor additional complexity:
306. Persons to be counted as members of the household include the following: …. Members of the household attending schools or colleges located in other districts, except student nurses away from home and students in the Naval Academy at Annapolis, or in the Military Academy at West Point, or in any other training school or institution operated by the War or the Navy Departments or the United States Coast Guard. (Emphasis added.)
Nine years later, in advance of planning for the 1950 census, Mr. Hansen decided to again raise the college student issue. On January 7, 1948, Mr. Hansen forwarded the 1939 study to Census Bureau Director James Clyde Capt and other senior officials. The agency’s Technical Advisory Committee on General Population Statistics reviewed the issue and the procedure subsequently proposed was that "a student who is away from home attending college will be considered and enumerated as a resident of the enumeration district in which he lives while attending college and not of the district in which his home is located." The legality of this procedural change was reviewed and approved by the Acting Attorney General, whose letter to the Secretary of Commerce on March 25, 1950, quoted the Acting Census Director:
"One of the problems facing the Bureau of the Census at each enumeration of the population is the handling of persons who have concurrent residence in two places…. It has been necessary to devise rules for enumerating such persons in a uniform manner.
For census purposes persons who appear to have two concurrent residences have generally been considered to be usual residents of the households in which they live in the area where they work. To illustrate, there are people who work in one community but maintain a home elsewhere at which they are present for weekends or less frequently. It has been customary census practice to count such persons as usual residents of the community in which they sleep more than half the week. Inmates of prisons, tuberculosis sanitariums and other institutions in many cases have homes from which they came and to which they will return. These persons have traditionally been counted as usual residents of the institution, which is the place where they lived and sleep most of the time. A similar treatment has long been given to members of the armed forces who are enumerated as inhabitants of the community in which they are stationed.
The principal exception to this rule in the past has been the college student living away from home. To be consistent, college students should be enumerated as residents of the community where they spend most of their time. Students living in college communities for as much as 9 months of the year should be enumerated as residents of those communities….”
The magnitude of this problem is not large. In the Current Population Survey for October, 1949, we found that there were about 2.3 million college students in the United States, and that about 1.3 million of these would have been enumerated as residents of the college community even under 1940 procedures. The 1950 rule therefore involves a change for only a part of the total college student population…."
Thus, in 1950, the Census Bureau finally and permanently determined that enumerating college students at their college residences where they normally lived and slept was better policy that was more consistent with the standard historical definition of "usual place of abode" or "usual place of residence." It would (or should) certainly have been less confusing to enumerators and the public. Enumerating college students at their college residence is still the rule today - as parents of students may remember if they read and followed the directions for the recent 2020 census!
Notes for readers:
(1) Statistics on institutions of higher learning and the number of their students are from Thomas D. Snyder, ed., 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1993) and Digest of Education Statistics (2013), "Table 303.10: Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2023."
(3) The University of Wisconsin study results and other memorandums on the subject of enumerating college students are from "Binder 36-L - Enumeration of Students" (National Archives Identifier 205683298).