Census officials are concerned that college students in Santa Barbara have left and might not be counted in the census.
Census officials are concerned that college students who left Isla Vista and other South Coast areas may not be counted locally.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Thousands of local college students moved back home during spring break and didn’t return because campuses closed and moved most classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Santa Barbara County U.S. Census Complete Count Committee is worried that could lead to undercounting people for the 2020 Census, especially in heavily student-populated areas like Isla Vista.

Students who normally live at school should be counted in that community, even if they are temporarily living somewhere else due to the pandemic. The same goes for anyone who attends school elsewhere but returned to the Santa Barbara area temporarily due to the pandemic. 

Colleges and universities count people living in on-campus housing, so those students are off the hook, but off-campus college students should fill out the questionnaires for themselves and their entire household of roommates, according to the U.S Census Bureau. 

“We’ve been working with Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara to make sure that the information has gone out. I know UCSB sent emails to students and to their parents reminding them even though you’re not at school, you get counted as if you were at school,” said Joni Maiden, co-chair of the county Census committee.

It’s important to get a complete count of everyone in the county for federal and state funding as well as governmental representation, Maiden said. 

“For every individual uncounted, federal funding for the county goes down by $2,000 per year for 10 years. An undercount of just 5 percent equals a loss of $430 million over the next decade,” she said.

Members of the county committee had plans for outreach and questionnaire assistance centers that had to be thrown out the window with the novel coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order, Maiden said.

Home visits were scheduled to start in late May for people who haven’t responded yet, but the U.S. Census Bureau pushed that to June.

The local committee is using more social media and radio spots to get the word out, and may use phone banking or text messages to reach hard-to-count communities such as low-income persons, non-English speakers, homeless residents, people who don’t live in traditional housing, and young children.

“Those hard-to-counts are the ones who need the face-to-face interaction, they don’t necessarily have access to online equipment. Right now we’re believing over the phone is the best way to reach them,” Maiden said.

Residents can self-respond online at www.my2020census.gov or by calling 844.330.2020. Invitations to respond went out in March, and paper questionnaires were mailed last week to households that didn’t respond yet.

“While you’re safe at home you can complete it safely over the phone, online or by paper. No one will come and visit you if you self-respond,” Maiden explained.

Half of California households had responded to the 2020 Census questionnaire as of last week, and Santa Barbara County was beating that with a 52.8-percent response rate.

Among local cities, Goleta’s public information campaign seems to be paying off. It still has the highest response rate, at 60.5 percent of households.

Estimating How Many College Students Left Town

UC Santa Barbara has about 26,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, and the majority of them are estimated to have left the area after the campus closed and classes moved online.

“UC Santa Barbara was proactive and made the decision to transition to remote instruction in the early stages of the outbreak and encouraged our students to return home to protect the health not only of our campus community, but also our broader Goleta and Santa Barbara communities,” spokeswoman Andrea Estrada said.

About 75 percent of students have left campus housing, while others are staying because of travel restrictions or other issues, she said. 

UCSB is moving some students within campus housing to “promote physical distancing,” she added. 

“We do not have any official numbers for Isla Vista, but we have heard anecdotal estimates that approximately 60 percent of the UCSB and City College students may have left IV and returned home.” 

College journalists have offered a view into the emptier life in Isla Vista now, with a no-show Deltopia and struggling businesses who rely on students as workers and customers.

The student-run Bottom Line reported that 93 percent of students living in on-campus dormitories canceled their contracts for the spring quarter, and the majority of students also left university-run apartments, graduate student housing, and family housing complexes.

That’s 9,925 students who left out of 12,629, the Bottom Line reported in early April.

Santa Barbara City College had 16,120 credit students enrolled in the fall, with about 11,500 attending classes at the main campus.

Unlike UCSB and Westmont College, SBCC does not have college-managed housing, so it cannot easily calculate estimates of students leaving the area.  

However, roughly half of its students are from outside the district boundaries, which run from Gaviota to Carpinteria, according to fall enrollment numbers.

About 100 of Westmont College’s 1,200 or so students were still on campus as of early April, spokesman Scott Craig said.

“Some remain on campus because they are international students who can’t travel home and others who have local jobs that are essential to their financial livelihood,” he said in an email.

Westmont College classes are offered remotely, but some students are staying until those courses end in June, he said.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.