Census 2020: Everything you need to know about North Carolina’s hard-to-count communities

A complete and accurate census count is incredibly important. The census shapes how billions of dollars in federal funding are distributed, how congressional seats are apportioned, and how communities plan for their future residents.

But certain populations have historically been undercounted in the census, due to a variety of factors. Undercounting these communities skews the census data that’s used to ensure fair political representation and support community planning.

To help North Carolina achieve a complete and accurate census count, Carolina Demography worked with the NC Counts Coalition to create a map that identifies communities across the state that are most at-risk of being undercounted in the 2020 Census.

Based on low-response scores and 2010 response rates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s  2018 Planning Database and the most up-to-date community characteristics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 5-Year American Community Survey, the tool also provides reasons why certain populations may be hard to reach or count.

We sat down with Rebecca Tippett, the Director of Carolina Demography, and Stacey Carless, Executive Director of the NC Counts Coalition, to learn more about making a map to examine North Carolina’s hard-to-count populations.

Undercounted communities and the census

First, we should start off with the obvious: Why is the Census important for policymakers and researchers?

Rebecca Tippett: When we talk about the importance of the Census, we often talk about power and money. We use the Census counts to distribute political power and allocate funding for everything from highway spending to programs like Medicare and Head Start.

But the Census is more than just that. It is the backbone of virtually every data product researchers, governments, and businesses use to understand who we are, how we’ve changed, and what this might mean for the future. It’s also the most democratic and inclusive activity we do as a country. This once-a-decade count is the only source of basic demographic data on all individuals living in the United States.

Why is an accurate Census count important for North Carolina?

Stacey Carless: The Census directly affects the allocation of $16.3 billion annually in federal resources to North Carolina. Additionally, it provides key decision-makers with the information they need to ensure that government resources are directed strategically to the state’s communities. Also, the Census ensures that communities are appropriately represented in the statehouse and in Congress. With an accurate 2020 Census count, North Carolina is projected to gain a seat in the House of Representatives, increasing its representation from 13 to 14 representatives.

Why is it important to understand the populations that might be undercounted in the Census?

Rebecca Tippett:  The term most commonly used by Census experts is “differential undercount,” which just means that not all populations are equally likely to be counted in the Census. Some groups—like college students or people who own two homes—are more likely to be counted more than once, while other groups—like young children or people who have recently moved—are less likely to be counted at all.

Communities only have one shot to count all of their residents. If a community is undercounted, they will have lower quality data and receive less than their fair share of political representation and funding for the next decade.

Why are communities undercounted?

There are four main reasons why a population might be hard to count:

  1. They might be hard to locate, like people who live off-the-grid or who don’t wish to be found.
  2. They might be hard to contact, like people who live in gated communities.
  3. They might be hard to interview, meaning they might have low literacy or struggle with English.
  4. They might be hard to persuade, meaning they are suspicious of the government or don’t see a benefit to participating in the Census.

What groups are traditionally harder to count?

Rebecca Tippett:   Hard-to-count communities include children under age 6, renters, and American Indian, Hispanic, and Black households. Changes to the 2020 Census – such as the shift to primarily online data collection and the proposal to add a citizenship question may create new risks of undercount among additional groups.

Making the hard-to-count map

Why did you commission the map and what were you hoping to learn?

Stacey Carless: We serve as a “go-to” resource for 2020 Census planning in North Carolina. Stakeholders and partners were asking for user-friendly maps to better target outreach to hard to count populations. There was a need for a NC specific resources and we wanted to develop it. Also, for our statewide plan, we needed more information on hard-to-count communities in North Carolina to determine where we will place our resources and target our outreach efforts.

How did you make the map that identifies communities across North Carolina  that might be hard to count in the upcoming census?

Rebecca Tippett:  We used Tableau Public with some expert guidance from the Davis Library Research Hub at UNC. We relied on data from multiple state and federal resources, including:

  • library branch locations from the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources;
  •  low-response scores and 2010 response rates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 Planning Database; and
  •  the most up-to-date community characteristics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 5-Year American Community Survey.

We then calculated distances from the middle of each census tract to the nearest library branch location in ArcGIS. All other data cleaning and evaluation was done using Stata.

What did you learn that surprised you?

Rebecca Tippett:  A few things. First, the risk of an undercount is not an urban or rural phenomenon. Hard-to-count communities are spread across the state.

And many of our hardest-to-count communities are military communities. Cumberland County, home of Fort Bragg, and Onslow County, where Camp Lejeune is located, have multiple tracts at high risk of being undercounted in the 2020 Census.

But based on low-response rates—the predicted share of households who will not self-respond to the 2020 Census—Robeson County is the hardest-to-count county in North Carolina. Seventy-two percent of Robeson residents live in a census tract that is predicted to be among the hardest to count in 2020.

How does NC Counts plan to use the map?

Stacey Carless: To better target our outreach efforts and to provide it to the public for better understanding of hard-to-count communities in NC.

If I wanted to use the map to see my own community, how  do I learn what census tract I live in?

Rebecca Tippett:  You can use the Census Tract Street Locater tool from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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NC in Focus: The Sex Gap in Postsecondary Attainment

Nationally, 46% of women aged 25-64 reported having an associate degree or higher in 2017 compared to 39% of men, a gap of seven percentage points. In North Carolina, this gap was even larger: 48% of women had an associate degree or higher compared to 38% of men, a gap of 10 percentage points.

Compared to men, North Carolina women are more likely to report the completion of an associate degree (11.9% vs. 8.3%), bachelor’s (23.3% vs. 20.1%), or master’s (9.8% vs. 6.8%) degree. Men are slightly more likely than women to hold a professional degree (1.8% vs. 1.7%) or a doctorate (1.3% vs. 1.1%).

The female-male gap in postsecondary attainment differs by age, reflecting changing norms and expectations about women and work. At older ages—65 and above—men have higher levels of educational attainment, reflecting the different opportunity structures and expectations of the mid-twentieth century. (Among North Carolinians age 65 and older, 38% of men have an associate or higher compared to 30% of women.)

As women entered the workforce in increasing numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, female educational attainment also increased. The female-male difference in educational attainment emerges among individuals ages 55-64 (born between 1953 and 1962), with 42% of women reporting an associate degree or higher compared to 37% of men. This gap widens in younger generations, driven by steady increases in female educational attainment and relatively small changes in men’s overall attainment.

Among North Carolinians ages 45-54, the female-male attainment gap is 10 percentage points: 47% of women report an associate degree or higher compared to 37% of men. The difference increases to 12 percentage points among 35-44-year-olds, with 52% of women holding an associate degree or higher compared to 40% of men and remains at 12 percentage points among adults aged 25-34 (51% vs. 39%).

Next up: why is it so important that students graduate from high school on time?

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Rising Attainment Among North Carolina’s Degree-Earners

Forty-three percent of North Carolina’s adults aged 25-64 held some type of postsecondary degree in 2017—just over 2.3 million residents in the state. This share has risen five percentage points since 2010, and ten since 2000. In total, North Carolina gained 932K working-age adults with an Associate degree or higher from 2000 to 2017, and among these adults, the level of degree attainment continues to rise.

In 2000, the majority of NC adults aged 25-64 with a postsecondary degree held a Bachelor’s (53%). This share dropped three percentage points as of 2017 to just half of all degree holders. An additional one-fourth of degree-holders had an Associate in 2000. This share dropped one percentage point by 2017 to 24%.

The four percentage point (pp) loss among these two groups is accounted for by growth in Master’s (+3pp) and Doctoral degree holders (+1pp) over the same period. In 2000, 16% of degree-holders in North Carolina had a Master’s and 2% held a Doctorate, growing to 19% and 3% in 2017, respectively.

The number of NC adults aged 25-64 with a Master’s degree grew by over 100% – the only group to do so – from 222K in 2000 to 446K in 2017. This growth rate is followed closely by growth in the number of working-age adults with a doctoral degree (93%), from 33.3K in 2000 to 64.2K in 2017. Bachelor’s degree-holders, by comparison, grew the slowest at 59%, or 431K, since 2000. The difference in growth rates is partly due to the large number of Bachelor’s degree-holders compared to Master’s and doctoral degree-holders.

This growth in advanced degrees follows closely with the growth in occupations by degree level. According to data from North Carolina’s Commerce Department, jobs requiring a Master’s degree or higher are projected to have the fastest growth through 2026—their projected growth is 4.1 percentage points faster than the average growth for all jobs in NC. While occupations requiring an advanced degree still comprise a smaller overall share of the total job market – contributing to some of this fast growth – demands for the labor market are also experiencing real shifts. According to a nationwide survey conducted by CareerBuilder, “60% of employers who were satisfied with hiring high school graduates in the past claimed their work requires the skills held by those who completed higher education”.

With that said, North Carolina residents considering a postsecondary degree should recognize that job growth is projected to exceed the state average for any occupation requiring at least an Associate degree. An advanced degree may not be suitable for everyone, but some postsecondary attainment is increasingly recommended. Occupations requiring a high school degree alone have projected growth 1.5 percentage points slower than the average for all jobs. Growth will be even slower for those requiring some college, no degree at 3 percentage points less than the average for all jobs.

On the other hand, individuals can expect much faster-than-average growth in the skilled-service sector. These occupations typically require an Associate or a nondegree work credential, and will exceed the average for all jobs by 3.3 percentage points and 1.9 percentage points, respectively.

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In-migration plays large role in NC’s rising educational attainment

When we focus on educational attainment, we generally focus on prime working-age adults, defined here as adults between the ages of 25 and 64. There were 5.4 million prime working-age adults in North Carolina in 2017. Of these individuals, 2.3 million or 43.2% held a postsecondary degree:

  • 545,000 or 10% had an associate degree
  • 2 million or 22% had a bachelor’s degree
  • 446,400 or 8% had a master’s degree
  • 92,900 or 2% had a professional degree, such as a JD, MBA, or MD
  • 64,200 or 1% had a doctoral degree

Among the more than three million North Carolina prime working-age adults without a postsecondary degree, the largest number (1.3 million) had a high school diploma or GED, equivalent to 24% of NC adults aged 25-64. Another 1.2 million reported having some college, no degree, followed by 570,500 with less than a high school diploma, representing 22% and 11% of prime working-age adults, respectively.

How have these populations changed since 1990? The number of adults aged 25-64 living in North Carolina grew by 1.9 million between 1990 and 2017. Over this period, the number of adults without a high school diploma declined by 246,000. This decline reflects generational replacement as, over time, older, less educated workers are replaced by younger workers with higher levels of educational attainment.

At all other levels of attainment, the number of NC workers increased. Compared to 1990, in 2017 there were:

  • 705,600 more adults aged 25-64 with a bachelor’s degree, the largest numeric increase of any attainment group.
  • 537,400 more adults with some college, no degree. Some of these adults may have nondegree credentials that are not well-captured by the American Community Survey data used here. Many, however, are partway home students who have some college credit (and may have college debt), without a degree or credential to confer workplace benefits.
  • 312,900 more adults with a master’s degree.
  • 269,500 more adults with an associate degree.
  • 245,300 more adults with a high school diploma or equivalent (e.g., GED).
  • 50,700 more adults with a professional degree.
  • 38,600 more adults with a doctoral degree.

Apart from adults with a high school diploma or less than a high school diploma, all attainment groups grew faster than the overall population growth rate of 56%. The number of associate degree holders increased 98% and the number of postsecondary degree holders at all other levels more than doubled over this period. As a result, the share of North Carolina adults with a postsecondary degree increased 16 percentage points, rising from 27.2% in 1990 to 43.2% in 2017.

Much of the state’s growth between 1990 and 2017 was fueled by net in-migration, and this in-migration also fueled the steady increase in the number of NC adults with a postsecondary degree. Since 1990, the state population of prime working-age adults with a postsecondary degree increased by 1.4 million—974,600 or 70% of these new residents with a postsecondary degree were born outside of North Carolina. In 2017, 36% of NC-born adults aged 25-64 had an associate degree or higher compared to 50% of adults born outside of NC. (Note: sum of proportions in chart differs due to rounding).

North Carolina-born adults and adults born elsewhere were equally likely to report having less than a high school diploma. Compared to individuals born in another state or country, North Carolina-born adults aged 25-64 were more likely to have a high school diploma or equivalent; some college, no degree; or an associate degree. Individuals born in another state or country were more likely than their NC-born peers to hold bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees.

Next up: an examination of trends in the type of postsecondary degree held from 2000-2017.

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What is “postsecondary attainment”?

What is “postsecondary attainment”?

This post was co-authored with the John M. Belk Endowment.

School administrators, policy analysts, and government officials have begun using the term “postsecondary attainment” when discussing successful educational outcomes. What does this mean?

Postsecondary refers to education or training beyond high school. Attainment means the completion of a postsecondary degree or nondegree credential. Postsecondary attainment is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It includes postsecondary degrees, such as associate or bachelor’s degrees, awarded by a college or university, as well as nondegree credentials. There are three main categories of nondegree credentials:

  • Educational institutions also award postsecondary educational certificates and diplomas to students who complete a specific program of study. In general, they take less time to complete than a degree and are used to learn new skills or update existing skills in a field.Academic credits earned through a certificate or diploma can typically be applied towards a future degree.

  • Industry certifications are a signal to employers that an individual is proficient in a particular job or skill. They are usually awarded by a third-party, standard-setting organization after an individual successfully completes an assessment process.

  • Licenses are occupational credentials awarded by a government agency. They grant the license holder the legal authority to do a specific job based on the fulfillment of pre-determined criteria (typically some combination of degree or credential attainment, certifications, exams, apprenticeship programs, or work experience).
    When we talk about postsecondary attainment, we often focus our conversations on the degrees or credentials awarded by colleges and universities. This reflects a lack of high-quality data on nondegree credential attainment outside of the collegiate environment. Because licenses and certifications are granted by third-parties—such as an independent agency or board—and not an educational institution, they are harder to track than the degrees and nondegree credentials awarded by educational institutions.

    Additionally, while educational institutions provide data on nondegree certificates and diplomas, these details are not yet regularly reported in large-scale population surveys, such as the American Community Survey. In most existing surveys, nondegree credential holders without a postsecondary degree are categorized as having attained “some college, no degree.” This category includes credential holders as well as students who left college without completing a course of study. National data on the share of U.S. adults with a postsecondary nondegree credential first became available in 2014; this type of data is not yet regularly available for states or counties.

    Next up: in-migration and its role in North Carolina’s current attainment rate.

    Subscribe to our mailing list to stay up-to-date with our NC education pipeline research.

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