College students living off campus and earning little to no income of their own drive up the poverty rate in Waco and many other communities with significant student populations, according to a new report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Waco’s 27.5 percent poverty rate would stand at 22.5 percent if no college students were factored in, according to the bureau’s findings, based on American Community Survey estimates from 2012 to 2016. Students in on-campus housing are not factored in poverty rate calculations, and the influence of off-campus students has been recognized for years in smaller communities, according to the report. The new analysis shows the effect’s significance in areas with 10,000 or more residents.

Students make a difference, but poverty remains a problem, Baylor University sociology professor Charles Tolbert said.

“In Waco, when we subtract out the college students, there’s still significant poverty,” Tolbert said. “The advice I’ve always given folks who are concerned about that is, look at age-specific poverty rates.”

Waco’s childhood poverty rate, a figure unaffected by college students, is 31.8 percent, according to data compiled by Prosper Waco, a nonprofit that works on issues of education, health and financial security. Countywide, the childhood poverty rate is 23 percent.

And college students themselves are not immune to difficulties meeting their basic needs. Baylor opened a food pantry in December to serve students after conducting research that identified food insecurity as an issue, including among students whose tuition is covered by grants or scholarships.

Waco is home to Baylor, with 17,059 students; McLennan Community College, with 8,880 students; and Texas State Technical College, with 3,866 students.

According to the census bureau analysis, off-campus college students make up 8.6 percent of the 122,533-person population used to calculate Waco’s poverty rate.

College Station, home to Texas A&M University, has a 33.1 percent poverty rate, and it would fall to 15 percent if off-campus college students were excluded, according to the report.

Stephenville, San Marcos and Huntsville would also see double-digit decreases in poverty rates with the students excluded. McLennan County’s 19.9 percent poverty rate would fall to 17 percent without the students, according to the data.

Matthew Polk, the executive director of Prosper Waco, said the organization has also seen the data and is studying how best to combat poverty.

“When we tell the story about our community, obviously less poverty is a good thing,” Polk said. “I don’t know that there’s any way to say what level of poverty is acceptable or is good or bad. That’s going to depend on everybody’s own opinion of a lot of different things, but certainly we want to be realistic about where we stand.”

Poverty rates and the differences with and without college students living off campus

* Populations used to calculate poverty rates exclude students who live on campus and other segments of the total population. // Source: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

  Population* % off-campus
Poverty rate Poverty rate
Murfreesboro, Tenn. 117671 7.4 16 12
Austin 886574 5.7 16.7 14.4
Bryan 77083 7.6 24.4 21
College Station 93474 30.8 33.1 15
Denton 117467 12.3 19.5 13.3
Huntsville 26126 22.2 36.4 23.2
Lubbock 233397 8.7 20.9 16.4
Richardson 107196 4.2 10.4 8
San Antonio 1415593 2.4 19.5 18.8
San Marcos 51349 26.8 35.8 23.4
Stephenville 17852 19.9 28.6 15.5
University Park 21753 3.2 4.2 2.4
Waco 122533 8.6 27.5 22.5

Phillip Ericksen joined the Tribune-Herald in March 2015 as a sports copy editor. That November, he joined the news team. He has covered higher education, city hall, politics and crime.

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