The 2020 Census: What is the census?

Later this year, Penn State will offer guidance to on-campus students
Aerial view of Penn State campus

Penn State students living on campus will be counted in those households for the purposes of the census count. The University will release more specific information later this year.

Credit: Tina Hay, Penn State

Plain and simple, the 2020 Census is a count of every individual living in the country of the United States of America, as of April 1, 2020. This year’s census will be the 24th since the nation’s founding. This year’s installment will be the first to allow individuals to respond by phone or online.

Specific information about the steps Penn State will take to support students who live on campus in taking the census will be provided as the national count approaches. More specific information about how the U.S. Census Bureau counts university students living on campuses across the country is provided at the end of this piece.

Census Day: April 1, 2020

While many individuals are unclear about why a census is important, counting the country’s population has broad importance, both politically and economically. By the time April Fool’s Day, 2020, rolls around, everyone should have received a request to submit their census information. Participation is required by law.

According to the Census Bureau, completion of the census should “take less time than it takes to finish your morning coffee.”

Why should I care?

Politics and the states’ representation

One of the biggest reasons to count the population of each state in the country is to make a determination on the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. States may gain or lose seats based on the results of the census and the difference in the reported population from one decade to another. 

According to multiple forecasters, including the Brennan Center for Justice, Pennsylvania is among seven states predicted to lose one seat in the House of Representatives. Other states that may lose a seat include Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island and West Virginia. New York may lose one or two seats. States that may gain a seat include Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon. Those with the most to gain include Florida, which may pick up two seats, and Texas, which is likely to gain three seats.

“The census is absolutely fundamental for any type of representative democracy, where you have to divide political power according to where the population lives,” said Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State.

State and national funding

It is estimated, by the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources, that between $600 and $900 billion in federal, state and local funding will be distributed based on the results of the 2020 Census.

“The census is important for distribution of government grant money that depends on population formulas,” said Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. “Undercounted areas get less money than they should.”

United States Census 2020

The census has been a cornerstone of our democracy since the first national count in 1790. It is mandated by the Constitution and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency.

Credit: Courtesy: U.S. Census Bureau

What questions are included on the census?

Before looking at what questions are on the census, it's important to look at what questions are not on it. There is no question on the census related to citizenship. Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, census-takers will never be asked for Social Security numbers, bank or credit card account numbers, donations or anything on behalf of a political party.  

“Despite an unsuccessful attempt by the administration to add citizenship as a question on the 2020 census, immigrant communities may still be afraid to participate in the census,” said Shoba Wadhia, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State. “Alleviating this fear will be a challenge and based in part on how successful community organizations are in encouraging immigrant communities to participate in the census.”

Questions on the census include how many people are living in the home; whether the home is owned or rented; and what the relationship is between each person in the home. Click here for the full list, and more information about how answers may be used.

The U.S. Census Bureau is not permitted to share any individual data with other agencies and is bound by law to protect individuals’ answers and keep those answers strictly confidential. The law states that an individual’s private information cannot be published and answers to the questions cannot be used against an individual by any government agency or court. To support historical research, Title 44 of the U.S. Code does allow for the release of this individual data after 72 years. 

"According to Title 13, all census data can only be used to produce statistics, which is also a key mandate for the U.S. Census Bureau," said Aleksandra (Sesa) Slavkovic, professor in the departments of statistics and public health sciences and associate dean for graduate education in Penn State's Eberly College of Science. "Thus the census has been at the forefront on producing its statistical data products with the strongest confidentiality guarantees in the federal government. To account for today's digital age and data proliferation from many sources outside the census, the bureau is implementing a formal privacy methodology for publishing statistics that, to date, offers the strongest privacy protection for the respondents."

Counting college students

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at universities nationally:

  • College students residing on campus or living near a university for the majority of the year will be counted in those individual households near and on the campus.
  • College students who reside at home will be counted by those households.
  • U.S. college students who are living and attending college outside the United States are not counted in the census.
  • Foreign students living and attending college in the United States should be counted at the on- or off-campus residence where they live the majority of the time.

Later this year, Penn State will provide information about forthcoming efforts to assist with census counts on students in residence halls.

To learn more about the 2020 Census, go to