When Off-Campus College Students are Excluded, Poverty Rates Fall in Many College Towns

Written by: Alemayehu Bishaw

What happens to the poverty rate of a community when you exclude college students who live off-campus? A new working paper, Examining the Effect of Off-Campus College Students on Poverty Rates, using  American Community Survey data collected from 2009 to 2011, looks at this question and found significant changes, especially for cities with large student populations. The paper analyzes the impact of college students who are not living with relatives on the poverty rates of states, counties and places where the schools are located.

The Census Bureau often receives calls from communities asking about this topic. This information is important for state and local planners for determining the number of nonstudents eligible for programs and services. While poverty estimates from the Census Bureau generally already exclude college students living in dormitories, they usually include all college students living off-campus.

For the 2009-2011 period, about 15.2 percent of the total U.S. population had income below the poverty level. In contrast, more than half (51.8 percent) of students living off-campus and not living with relatives were below the poverty line. Excluding these students, the total poverty rate for the rest of the U.S. population dropped to 14.5 percent and most states also had small but statistically significant declines in their poverty rates. Among all states, the size of the decline in poverty rates ranged from 0.3 percentage points in Alaska to 1.8 percentage points in North Dakota.

Map showing impact of excluding off-campus college students from poverty rates by state


We also looked at what would happen to the poverty rates of counties and cities when we excluded these students.

For counties, we saw that of the 1,844 counties with populations greater than 20,000 people, 162 counties experienced a statistically significant change in its poverty rate after excluding off-campus college students.  For those counties with statistically significant changes, the decrease in the poverty rate ranged from 16.5 percentage points for Whitman County, Wash., to 0.6 percentage point in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Forty-nine cities (with populations greater than 100,000) had significant declines in poverty rates when off-campus college students were excluded.  Some of the places with the largest percentage point changes were smaller cities and towns.  For example, college towns such as State College, Pa., Blacksburg, Va., Athens, Ohio, West Lafayette, Ind., East Lansing, Mich., Isla Vista, Calif., and Oxford, Ohio, all had declines around 30 percentage points in their poverty rates.

The working paper includes an extensive set of tables showing poverty rates with and without off-campus college students for all states and for all counties and places with populations greater than 20,000.

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6 Responses to When Off-Campus College Students are Excluded, Poverty Rates Fall in Many College Towns

  1. Micah says:

    In related news, when people below the poverty line are excluded, poverty falls to 0% in the entire world.

    It may be more useful to investigate the traits of those living in poverty, instead of discarding certain groups that match some bias.

  2. Bluebeard says:

    Micah: they did not do what your first sentence states. Many college students live below the poverty level, but are not actually of low socioeconomic status. Since when you are going to school you usually make much less money than the average full-time working population, it skews the examination of the traits of those living in poverty (which is why you investigate this bias).

  3. David H says:

    So, will the Census Bureau or any other federal agency take this into account when publishing official poverty rates or, more to the point, figuring out which localities are available for grants and other economic aid?

  4. Alemayehu Bishaw says:

    The working paper on examining the effects of off-campus college students on poverty rates was motivated by inquires to the Census Bureau about the impact of college/university students on poverty rates. At this time, the methodology used to create the poverty rate is not changing. Analysts can assess the impact of college/university students on poverty rates using the American FactFinder Table B14006: Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months by School Enrollment By Level of School for the Population 3 years or Over.

    To assess the impact or significance of this report on your community we suggest contacting your State Data Center who will be able to provide more in-depth insight.

  5. Steve Howe says:

    This study was recently sent to me and I’m struggling with the methodology. Per the income measures for poverty listed by the Census, “educational assistance” and “assistance from outside the household” are eligible income sources calculated in the poverty measure. (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/measure.html)

    If I’m a single person as most students are, my poverty income threshold is just under $12,000. So if I’m a student attending college, not living with in the dorms or with parents (those being excluded here), I’m going to HAVE to receive educational assistance and/or money from mom & dad, and if not, have a job just to pay for tuition, books, and housing. In most cases this measurable income would HAVE to be over $12K a year just to attend college.

    Per the National Center for Education Statistics, the average for all post secondary institutions (2 and 4 year) is over $13,000 which is over the $12,000 poverty line. How do you pay for this without educational assistance, money from outside the home, or traditional earned income, all which are measured as income in determining poverty. So it appears this study is excluding people who where never considered in poverty in the first place.

    Am I wrong on this?

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