Something’s missing from Prince Edward County’s census data

Published 3:33 am Wednesday, February 15, 2023

FARMVILLE – Prince Edward County’s population data isn’t exactly accurate. That’s one of several problems the staff at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center sees with the 2020 U.S. census results. Though the census records population data every decade, every year demographers with the Weldon Cooper Center develop population estimates for Virginia and its counties.

This year especially, Cooper Center Program Manager Hamilton Lombard admits, they ran into problems making those estimates. Lombard says in areas like Prince Edward County, the census data was skewed because they missed most college students. And in a county what includes Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College, those missing students add up.

Typically, in Prince Edward County, population loss is attributed to its large, aging population. The report shows that since 2020, the rural county has lost 2.1 percent, or 461 members of its population. But Lombard points out, you can’t point the finger at the elderly.

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“We’ve seen a lot of rural counties, like Prince Edward, where the number of births are going up – the deaths have been going down for a long time,” Lombard said. “I think families have been moving to those localities.”

So if the numbers are going up, if people are moving into the area, why does the census show the opposite?

The answer, he said, lies in miscounted college students.

What happened with the census?

In its estimates, the Weldon Cooper Center notes that localities with large college populations were often undercounted in the April 2020 Census Count. To correct this undercount, they took eight localities with over 20 percent of college students, including Prince Edward County, and benchmarked the 2020 and 2021 populations on their own estimates.

“In 2010, there’s 700 (college students), and in 2020, maybe 100 or none are counted. It’s pretty obvious it’s a problem,” Lombard said of the census data. “We boosted it slightly because there was an undercount along with students.”

To be clear, that slight boost isn’t supposed to make up for all the missing students. Once the remainder of the 2020 Census data is released later this year, Lombard says his group will examine the discrepancies in college town populations and make additional adjustments if needed.

But while Prince Edward should expect a potential increase in population once that’s done, the county’s first in a while, it’s not going to be a large one. In other words, expect an increase in the hundreds, not the thousands.

Why? It has to do with the number of those enlisting in higher education in Prince Edward.

“The enrollment of Hampden-Sydney College and Longwood University has fallen quite a bit,” he said. “We’ve seen that at a number of smaller counties around Virginia for the last couple of years.”

His team doesn’t use enrollment numbers directly in their estimates, but they do use dorm counts, something he says have fallen with both colleges.

COVID played a part in Prince Edward County

Cam Patterson, who serves as Longwood University’s Vice President of Student Affairs, says it’s already tough in rural areas to do the population counts. Adding COVID on top of that made it even harder.

“Having a pandemic hit right at the time you’re taking that crucial count was not ideal,” he said. “As an institution we were in a position to provide numbers for the students on campus. Because many of our off-campus students had gone back home [during the pandemic], it was tougher to count those critical communities. Our student population does add quite a bit of value to the numbers.”

The question remains as to how Prince Edward can retain those students. Right now, they count in the population for a four-year term and then most leave. County officials are still looking at how they can stop those departures.

“We as a community, from an economic standpoint, need to be trying to attract jobs that will bring people back to work here, and want to raise a family here,” Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said.

It’s difficult, he explains, but admits there has been a lot of new home construction and more potential growth.

“The data center project that the county is working on, and we’ve got the (SEED) Innovation Hub coming downtown,” he said. “I see some great opportunity on the horizon, but that’s certainly a goal of ours, to not only create jobs, but the ones that will bring and keep people here, and stabilize population figures.”

Can Prince Edward reach above projections?

Patterson, who also serves as chairman of Farmville’s planning commission, was surprised at the population loss aside from student numbers. From his perspective, it’s not reflective of what the community has achieved.

“In the past five or 10 years, Farmville has become an important destination for people looking for experiences, whether that be shopping, dining or taking advantage of Longwood University’s athletics.” he said. “The numbers don’t reflect the energy that folks have put in. If we continue that, hopefully we’re able to reach above those projections.”

Prince Edward joins Charlotte, Buckingham, Amelia and Nottoway Counties in a population percentage change of -2.5 percent. The region’s biggest growth was Goochland County at 5.9 percent.