Colleges and universities can exert significant impacts on the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of community populations. This is often self-evident in “college towns” such as Chapel Hill, where college students make up a large portion of the population. But, as Alemayehu Bishaw notes in a recent report for the U.S. Census Bureau, “even in large cities, a big student population living off-campus can impact [economic] indicators” such as the poverty rate.

College students typically live in one of three places: college dormitories, in off-campus housing with other students, or at-home with their parents or relatives. Where they are living determines how they are captured in the Census Bureau poverty measures:

  • College students residing in dormitories are never included in poverty measures. Like most other individuals residing in group quarters—such as prisoners and individuals living in military barracks—they are excluded from the “poverty universe” and are not captured in poverty measures. This means that colleges or universities where the majority of students live in on-campus, dormitory housing have minimal impacts on local poverty rates.
  • College students living at home with families are always included in poverty measures. Family households include individuals living at home with their parents, married college students living with their spouses (with or without children), and unmarried students living with dependent children. Their poverty status reflects their family’s poverty status (measured by total family income).
  • College students living in off-campus housing (not living with relatives) have historically been included in poverty measures. Their poverty status is determined by total personal income.

The inclusion of college students living in off-campus housing can have significant impacts on local poverty rates. Bishaw’s report used the 2009-2011 American Community Survey (ACS) to examine the impact of excluding these off-campus college students on local, county, and state poverty rates.

College Students & Residence Patterns: U.S and NC

In the 2009-11 ACS data, there were 23.2 million currently enrolled college students nationwide. The majority (63.3%) of these students lived in family households. Nearly twelve percent lived in dormitories, military quarters, jails/prisons/correctional institutions, or other group quarters. Twenty-five percent—5.8 million individuals—lived off-campus in non-family households.

College Students by Living Arrangements US v NC 2009_11 ACS

In North Carolina, there were 721,000 students enrolled in colleges according to the 2009-11 ACS. The distribution of students by housing status was similar to national trends, with slightly higher proportions living in college dorms and off-campus: 61% lived with parents or relatives; nearly 26% lived off-campus in non-family households; and 13.4% lived in college dorms and other group quarters.

Among NC’s 97,000 college students in group quarters, nearly 90,000 were in college dorms, 3,100 were in correctional facilities, 1,900 were in military barracks, and 1,100 were in group homes and residential treatment centers. The others were spread across nursing homes, religious group quarters, and workplace and job corps centers.

Impact of College Students on Poverty Rates

The exclusion of college students living off-campus lowers poverty rates in most states. Nationally, 52% of college students living off-campus fell below the poverty line in the 2009-11 data. When they were included in the overall poverty measure, the poverty rate was 15.2% for all people. When off-campus college students were excluded from the measure, the overall U.S. poverty rate dropped to 14.5%, a decline of 0.7 percentage points.

In North Carolina, the statewide poverty rate was 17.2% in the 2009-11 ACS. Among college students living off-campus, 57% fell below the poverty line. The statewide poverty rate declined to 16.4% when off-campus students were excluded from poverty rates.

Bishaw notes:

 “While the poverty rates for most states would be lower if off-campus college students were excluded from the poverty universe, the declines in the state poverty rates would be quite modest. However, at finer levels of geography there are counties and places where the inclusion of off-campus college students has a stronger impact on poverty rates. For some purposes, state and local planners may want to consider using an alternative poverty measure that excludes these students.”

Among the 43 North Carolina places with populations of 20,000 or more in the 2009-11 American Community Survey, five had statistically significant declines in poverty rates when off-campus college students were excluded.

  • Chapel Hill, home to UNC-Chapel Hill, had poverty rates decline from 23.7% to 11.5%. This decrease of 12.2 percentage points was the largest among all NC places examined in Bishaw’s analysis.
  • Greensboro, home to multiple colleges and universities, such as Guilford College, NC A&T State University, and UNC-Greensboro, saw its poverty rate drop from 20.1% to 17.8%.
  • Greenville, home to East Carolina University, had the second largest poverty rate decline in NC when off-campus college students were excluded, from 30.6% to 20.3%.
  • With NC State and other colleges and universities, including Meredith College and Shaw University, Raleigh’s poverty rate was significantly impacted by off-campus college students in spite of the city’s large population. When off-campus students not living with relatives were excluded, Raleigh’s poverty rate declined from 17.1% to 14.7%.
  • Wilmington, home to UNC-Wilmington, had the largest poverty rate decline among NC places with populations of 100,000 or more. Wilmington’s poverty rate declined from 24.2% to 20.6% when off-campus college students not living with relatives were excluded from the measure.

Poverty Rate_5 NC Places_2009_11 ACS

Impact of excluding off-campus college students in detail:

1,844 Counties with 20,000 or more Residents in 2009-11 ACS

Counties with Populations of 100,000 or more

Among the 565 counties nationwide with 100,000 or more residents in the 2009-11 ACS, 105 had a significant change in their poverty rate when off-campus college students were excluded from the rate. Two North Carolina counties—Pitt County, home to East Carolina University, and Orange County, home to UNC-Chapel Hill—were among the top 20 large counties with the most significant changes in poverty rates after excluding off-campus college students.

  • Pitt County (15th) – poverty rate declined from 24.6% to 19.1%
  • Orange County (19th) – poverty rate declined from 18.8% to 14%

Nationwide, the largest declines were in Monroe County, IN (25.5 to 13.8%); Clarke County, GA (38.3 to 26.9%); and Brazos County, TX (31.1% to 19.9%).

Counties with Populations between 65,000 and 100,000

Nationwide, 217 counties had between 65,000 and 100,000 residents in the 2009-11 ACS. Of these, only 16 saw significant changes in poverty rates when off-campus college students were excluded from the rate. None of these significant changes occurred in North Carolina counties.

Counties with Populations between 20,000 and 65,000

Among the 1,062 counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 persons, there were 41 that saw significant declines in their poverty rates after excluding off-campus students. Watauga County, home to Appalachian State University, saw the 7th largest decline in its poverty rate – from 28.4% to 15.7%—a decline of 12.7 percentage points or nearly half. Watauga’s decline was the largest among North Carolina counties.

2,115 Places with 20,000 or more Residents in 2009-11 ACS

Places with Populations of 100,000 or more

Nationwide, 49 cities with populations of 100,000 or more had significant declines in poverty rates when off-campus college students were excluded. 3 were in North Carolina:

  • Wilmington City (20th) – from 24.2% to 20.6%
  • Raleigh (36th) – from 17.1% to 14.7%
  • Greensboro (37th) – from 20.1% to 17.8%

Places with Populations between 65,000 and 100,000

Among places with populations between 65,000 and 100,000, there were twenty places nationwide with significant declines in their poverty rates after excluding off-campus students. These included College Station, TX, home to Texas A&M, (#1); Bloomington, IN, home to Indiana University (#2), and Champaign, IL, home to University of Illinois (#3). Greenville City, home to ECU, had the 6th largest decline nationally, dropping from 30.6% to 20.6% in poverty when off-campus students were excluded from the rate.

Places with Populations between 20,000 and 65,000

Nationwide, there were 1,602 places with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 in the 2009-11 ACS. Of these, 71 places had significant declines in their 2009-11 poverty rates when off-campus college students were excluded from the rate. State College, PA, home to Penn State University (53.1% to 18.4%); Blacksburg, VA, home to Virginia Tech (43.5% to 11.5%); and Athens, OH, home to Ohio University (54.4% to 23.1%), had the three largest declines. Chapel Hill, NC, home to UNC-Chapel Hill saw the 40th largest absolute decline in poverty rate among these smaller places, dropping from 23.7% to 12.2%.

  • How can we help you learn more about your community?

    Contact Us