Officials in Indiana college towns are questioning data showing population loss in their cities. They suggest census numbers are wrong and the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020 is responsible.
In Bloomington, home to Indiana University, the population fell from 80,405 to 79,168 since 2010. Mayor John Hamilton told the Bloomington Herald-Times he believes the city has grown.
“All the years since have seen us growing to 86,000 – adding 6,000 people. All the evidence we have from school enrollments to taxes to all kinds of different measures indicate growth,” Hamilton said.
Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour concedes his city has lost residents, but argues the population loss in areas where off-campus Ball State University students live shows they were not counted. Universities report the number of students living in campus housing, but not off-campus students.
“The challenge comes with students not living in dorms, who instead rent apartments and houses near campus,” Ridenour wrote in an op-ed column for the Star Press in Muncie. “BSU and other universities sent students home in March of 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, so many of the students were not in Muncie on April 1 during the counting timeframe.”
He pointed to a census tract near campus that showed a vacancy rate of more than 41%. Ten years ago it showed a vacancy rate of just 9.8%.
“That census tract alone reported 5,358 residents in 2020 compared to 6,875 population in 2010,” he wrote.
Other college towns also saw declines: West Lafayette, home to Purdue University's flagship campus, had a 2019 population estimate of 50,996 and a 2020 census of 44,595. Terre Haute, where Indiana State University is located, had a 2019 estimate of 60,622 and a 2020 census report of 58,389.
Hamilton said Bloomington is looking at ways to contest the findings. The population decline could translate to the loss of millions of dollars in federal allocations for Indiana's college communities.