Despite a substantial increase in housing units in East Lansing, the 2020 census has shown a decline in the city’s population over the past decade – a trend that could forestall some funding opportunities. The latest census also indicates that, since 2010, the population has become more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity.
The 2020 U.S. census showed 47,741 people lived in East Lansing compared to 48,579 in 2010, a decline of 838 residents or 1.7% of the population. The decline in population comes in spite of the development of large apartment complexes like The Landmark and The Hub in the city, giving people more places to live.
A report provided to ELi by East Lansing Census Complete Count Committee Chair Laurence (Larry) Rosen showed 15,787 housing units in East Lansing in 2010 and 16,590 in 2020, an increase of 803 units.
Rosen, who has a doctorate in sociology and served in the state government as Michigan’s first demographer in the 1980s, told ELi East Lansing’s population decline is surprising and disappointing.
“We would’ve expected the city to grow because of the number of housing units growing and it didn’t,” he said.
Rosen said the decline is also surprising because it does not seem the new large living facilities are struggling to find tenants. He said there are some housing developments in areas surrounding East Lansing, especially Meridian Township, that may have pulled students from the city.
The stalled population could come with consequences. Rosen said the census helps to determine how billions of federal dollars are spent. Surpassing 50,000 residents would have unlocked some funding opportunities, including, for example, some available through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The official census webpage states the census helps “communities determine where to build everything from schools to supermarkets, and from homes to hospitals. It helps the government decide how to distribute funds and assistance to states and localities.”
The site also explains the census is used to draw lines of legislative districts and determine how many seats each state holds in Congress.
There are serious concerns about data collection in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a problematic backdrop to the 2020 census, especially in college towns.
“This phenomenon of the college towns being undercounted was not just here,” Rosen said. “There are a number of large universities across the country that had the same issue show up when the census results came out.”
When filling out the census report, individuals are supposed to list their residence as the place they live most of the year. For year-round Michigan State University (MSU) students, that should be East Lansing. However, people who split time between multiple homes may use the wrong address.
“It’s not unusual for some people who are students or other transient residents of a community to report back that they live at their parents’ home, not where they reside most of the time,” Rosen said.
This problem may have been especially prevalent with the latest census. In March 2020, MSU classes were moved online and many students left East Lansing. While census workers knocked on doors for months trying to collect data, some students did not return to East Lansing and were missed in the count.
A second problem is counting in “group quarters” or places where many people live and are not part of a traditional family. Some places that qualify as group quarters are not more likely to be in college towns, like military barracks or nursing homes. However, others like Greek Life houses and co-ops, are.
Rosen said one resident in a group quarter may throw out mail urging the house to fill out the census. And, even if a census worker is able to reach a resident in a group quarter, the resident may not be able to provide information about the rest of the people living in the home.
Internet reporting from MSU helped with data collection.
Despite challenges to the count, there were some advantages collecting data in 2020 versus past years.
One change is increased access to the internet and the availability of the census form online. The limitations census workers faced meeting people in the community due to the pandemic were softened by more people filling the form out early online.
Rosen said East Lansing’s census committee did a lot of online advertising to elicit responses. They also set up information tables at places like the MSU Union to let students know the form can be filled out online.
A second big advantage to East Lansing came with the U.S. Census Bureau allowing large universities like MSU to report data of students living on campus for the first time.
“[Students living on-campus are] just one of those things that was easy to let fall between the cracks,” Rosen said. “[Even with] people knocking on doors in the past, some people responded and some people didn’t. Some people got the form and filled it out and forgot to mail it.”
While Rosen said the East Lansing Census Commission never received confirmation whether MSU’s numbers were used, it would be obvious if the more than 15,000 students living on campus had been omitted from the count.
Census shows an increase in Black, Hispanic, and Native American residents, decline in Asian and white residents.
The 2020 census showed a dramatic increase in the number of Black residents in East Lansing. In 2010, there were 3,303 Black residents making up 6.8% of the population, compared to 5,776 Black residents making up 12.1% of the population in 2020.
Rosen is unsure of all the factors contributing to the jump in Black residents, but said an increase in Black MSU students and faculty members could be one reason. A review of diversity reports from MSU shows that 3,572 Black students attended the University in fall 2020, compared to 3,175 in 2010.
The number of residents who are Hispanic or Latino also rose, from 1,643 in 2010 to 2,477 in 2020, an increase of 51%.
The number of Native American residents also rose. Those identifying as American Indian and Alaskan Native went from 148 in 2010 to 177 in 2020, an increase of 20%. Those identifying as Native American and Pacific Islander went up from 22 to 49, an increase of 123%.
And there was a substantial increase in the number of people who described themselves as being of “two or more races,” from 1,200 in 2010 to 2,153 in 2020, an increase of 79%.
For the same period, there was a decline in East Lansing’s Asian population. In 2010 there were 5,135 Asian residents making up 10.6% of the population. In 2020, there were 4,209 Asian residents making up 8.8% of East Lansing.
Rosen said that decline could be partially due to international students staying in their home countries during the pandemic. Shifting international relations could also cause fewer students from certain nations to attend MSU, which could explain some changes.
White residents still make up most of the population of East Lansing, though by a smaller margin than in 2010. In 2010, there were 38,072 white residents, comprising 78.4% of the population. In 2020, there were 34,095 white residents, comprising 71.4% of the city.