Over the years, when traveling, I've occasionally been asked about the city of Athens, Ohio's population. It's not an easy question to answer.

Before replying, I'll usually ask the person, "Do you mean including the students at Ohio University, or not counting them?"

Then, no matter how they respond to that, I'll tell them what the latest U.S. Census count is, then go into a lengthy explanation for why nobody really knows how many of that total number are temporary OU students.

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With the 2010 Census effort revving up, I assigned myself the task of figuring out the answer to this question. Before doing so, however, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that my conclusions would be inexact, probably rounded off to a thousand or two. But even if we can say that Athens has 5,000 or 6,000 people who aren't students from out of town, that's much better than what we have now, which is basically, "Who the hell knows?"

Before moving forward, we had to figure out how the Census counts college student, especially in a town like Athens where the great majority of students hail from other counties and states, and are only here nine months annually for one to five years.

Up until recently, our newsroom thought that the U.S. Census counts off-campus students as residents of Athens, but not dorm-residing students, since the latter are "institutional." A credible source (whom we can't remember) told us this years ago, and we've been operating under that assumption ever since.

A couple weeks ago, however, Census officials told us that they do try to count all OU students who reside in Athens for most of the year as residents, for exactly that reason. They said it always has been done that way.

So this allowed me to start with the following two facts:

• According to U.S. Census, the city of Athens had 21,909 residents in 2007. We can assume that the population is still around that number, since it had only changed by a few hundred in either direction since 1990.

• Ohio University's Athens campus had 20,537 students in fall 2008.

Operating with laser-keen logic and elementary subtraction skills, I concluded that if the Census properly counted everybody who lived in Athens during its last population assessment, then the city of Athens only has 1,372 non-college-student permanent residents.

If that's correct, then once you suck away all of the carpet-bagging college students from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo and elsewhere from Athens, you're left with a pathetically puny little village.

Our 1,372 permanent residents would make us, drum roll please, much smaller than Nelsonville (5,400 in 2008).

Non-student Athens would also be dwarfed by: Belpre (6,514), Marietta (14,153), Ironton (11,320), Wellston (5,946), Jackson (6168), Gallipolis (4,174) and New Lexington (4,538), and in the same ballpark but still smaller than Crooksville (2,424), Glouster (2,034), McArthur (2,034) and McConnelsville (1,706).

Of course, this doesn't make any sense knowing what I known about the size of this town. The U.S. Census couldn't mess up that badly, could it?

STILL NO CLOSER TO AN answer, I decided to head in a different direction. I took the 20,537 student enrollment on the Athens campus and started subtracting students who either don't live in the city of Athens, or who happen to be permanent city residents themselves. (Yes, I should have done this in the first place.)

As of fall 2007, Athens County had 1,231 residents attending Ohio University. We'll estimate that around half of them should be counted as permanent residents of the city of Athens (since the city has a third of Athens County's total population).

So deducting 615 gives us an enrollment of 19,922 students who don't double as permanent residents.

Then we have to figure that at least several hundred OU students from other areas live outside the city when they're attending school. This number is very difficult to nail down, so I'll just pull it out of my backside. Let's say 600 non-local OU students live in the county but outside of Athens nine months a year. That brings the number of temporary Athens-dwelling students down to 19,322.

Then we need to subtract students who commute to the university from areas outside the county. According to OU's Office of Institutional Research, as of fall 2007, 947 residents of Meigs, Hocking, Vinton, Washington, Jackson, Perry and Morgan counties were attending the Athens campus. While some of them live in dorms or off-campus housing, many commute from these nearby counties. Let's say that two-thirds are commuters (630). That brings our enrollment down to 18,692.

So taking the population of Athens, and subtracting our new number for OU students who temporarily live in Athens, we're left with 3,217 permanent residents of Athens, which still makes us smaller than Nelsonville or New Lexington if we don't count all the out-of-town students who live and attend school here.

SO I WENT BACK TO the Census Web site to see if any other facts might help me out.

Right off the bat, I linked to a different page that actually had a higher number for Athens' population - 23,772. The American Community Survey offers a three-year estimate of the population from 2005-07. (I'm not sure why this number is so different from the '07 official Census number, and couldn't find an explanation.)

Using this new population number, and subtracting the adjusted enrollment figure, 18,692, we now have 5,080 Athens residents who aren't students from out of town. This is more like it, though it still seems rather small (however, it does make us bigger than Nelsonville, since we forgot to factor out of that city's permanent population of 5,400 all the temporary residents attending Hocking College.)

I decided to go at it in a different direction, just to see if this 5,080 number holds up. The tables in the Census' American Community Survey include age-specific population figures for the three-year survey period (2005-2007), along with their percentage of the city's population and the national percentage average for that age group.

Athens city, according to the ACS, had 335 residents under 5 years old, and 965 who were 65 years and older. The young cohort amounted to 1.4 percent of the city's population, and the older group was 4.1 percent, while the national average for these groups was 6.9 and 12.5 percent, respectively. While the ACS also gave the number for residents 18 years and over (22,013), this statistic contains a mixture of college and high-school students, and as a result, would be useless for my purposes. The under-5 and 65-and-over groups, on the other hand, are purely non-student.

Using the national averages for their percentages of the overall population, we can factor out the college student numbers that make our population demographics so atypical.

If the residents under 5 years old comprised 4.1 percent of the permanent population, the national average for that age group, the city would have 4,855 residents who aren't temporary students. If the residents 65 and over comprised the national average of 12.5 percent of our population, the city would have 7,720 of these permanent residents.

The difference in these two numbers suggests that even after factoring out the temporary student numbers, the city of Athens doesn't jibe with the national demographic averages (which shouldn't be surprising since not many cities do).

So once again, pulling off some statistical legerdemain, I averaged the numbers - 4,855 and 7,720 " and came up with 6,287. This is a bit more than my earlier 5,080 calculation, but does allow me to say with great confidence that if we didn't count all the temporary residents who are OU students, Athens would have around 5,000 or 6,000 residents. (If we assume some undercounting by the Census, it's probably closer to 6,000.)

Case closed.

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