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Census leaves questions

By Shannon Watkins

The Farmville Herald

Fluctuating student populations may partly account for a lower U.S. Census population in Farmville and Prince Edward County, two researchers at different Virginia institutions said.

However, town and county officials don’t know how this currently impacts federal funding for localities.

According to U.S. Census information, between April 1, 2010 and April 1, 2020, Farmville has seen a 9% population decrease, and Prince Edward County has seen a drop of 6.5%.

In the surrounding counties, Charlotte has seen the steepest decline at 8.4%, while Appomattox has shown 7.6% growth, almost as much as the state average of 7.9%.

“I suspect that what is happening there is similar to other small, rural localities,” David Poole of the Virginia Public Access Project, based in Richmond, said. “You can see pretty much all our peers are in the same boat. One issue is that the population is aging, so people are dying faster than they are being born.”

However, Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, said student residency fluctuations, especially with regard to COVID, was likely at least some of the reason for the decline.

“What I had seen was that most areas with college students were having fewer residencies than we expect,” Lombard said. “Just an undercount of college students, especially those living in off campus housing. That seems to be the trend. I would assume Longwood ended classes in March of 2020 and encouraged students to move out.”

Lombard said that for various reasons, a completely accurate residential count is unusual, and that any place with a large student population could be as much as 750-1,000 people off in its count.

“That’s what we see in Radford, Charlottesville and other college towns,” he said. “Some Longwood students weren’t counted. So, you had two things happen. You had the census try to follow up with these students who lived on campus, but if they graduated or moved away it would be very hard to find them. I think that’s the obvious one because you see it everywhere, even outside of Virginia.”

Also, he said, there was a new system being used by the census to try and reach all the students from every college in the country, but it hadn’t been perfected at the time of the census.

“It wasn’t formatted properly,” Lombard said. “That would be why you see this. Prince Edward County likely has about 800 more people than are being counted. I’m seeing college towns coming in under our projected numbers. It looks like there was maybe a slight decline in the census. They’ve had maybe a few more students living off campus.”

Lombard said he thought prisoners being paroled due to COVID might also be a factor.

The “2020 Census data is very difficult,” he said. “We’re trying not to rely on it any more than we have to, just because of COVID. I think the main thing is that the scale of the problem is unprecedented in the modern census. I wouldn’t read too much into the data.”