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College students are going hungry — states can help

College students are going hungry — states can help
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As Thanksgiving approaches, millions of Americans are struggling with the twin challenges of COVID-19 and spending the holiday without family or guests — and without food.

Even as the Senate’s intransigence around a relief package leaves the American people at risk of increased hunger and homelessness, college students are particularly vulnerable. Even before COVID-19, 39 percent (or more) of today’s college students were experiencing food insecurity. 

Recent actions such as the recent House vote in favor of the Pelosi-Mnuchin deal funding the government through Dec. 11 added $8 billion in nutrition assistance for hungry families across the country. The COVID-19-related food assistance includes a year-long extension of a program that allows families with school-aged children to buy groceries, and expands that program to support early childhood learners, too. However, even as Congress has navigated gridlock to provide direct assistance to hungry families, college students as a population have been all but absent. 

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Without aid from the federal government, states can play a central role in lessening college student hunger. States can change eligibility requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to improve college student access to food assistance. Whether state officials prioritize social safety nets or workforce development, this administrative change should be a priority: expanding SNAP will help food insecure students persist and complete college. 

SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps,” is the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program. SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. As of 2016, less than half of the 3.3 million potentially eligible college students received SNAP benefits. Despite the vast number of students in need — and the volume of research suggesting that additional basic needs support improves graduation rates — enrolling in SNAP is not easy for college students. Outdated perspectives about who students are have contributed to complex eligibility restrictions that make it difficult for students to access the program. 

To improve access to SNAP, states can themselves designate some postsecondary institutions and programs as equivalent to a SNAP Employment and Training Programs (SNAP E&T). With this change, college students who meet the income and eligibility requirements for SNAP will only need to produce evidence of enrollment at an approved institution. Proof of enrollment in an approved school or program would then qualify them for SNAP without the need to meet an additional requirement, such as working at least 20 hours or caring for a child. With the rise of student unemployment during COVID-19, easing these restrictions will be critical to ensuring students are able to meet their most basic need for food. 

New York’s recently expanded SNAP for college students and a handful of other states have leveraged this option to improve access to food assistance. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Oregon have made this change to support students at community colleges, and in some cases, students at four year institutions. One of the most comprehensive and earliest applications of this rule change occurred in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) issued revised guidance, established a standard verification form for students and published a comprehensive institution list for interested front-line workers. The additional actions by DTA meaningfully reduce the administrative burden students face when applying for SNAP and improve the ability of caseworkers to make accurate determinations. 

So how could more states do this? This simple policy change is available to all states and is only one of several administrative options available to maximize federal flexibility in SNAP that could better support college students. Designating colleges and universities in this way is an administrative change — it does not require legislative action; federal regulations allow states to determine which training programs are comparable to a SNAP E&T program. Moreover, the shift does not require additional funding from states or the federal government.

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Critics of public support programs should rejoice at these changes; higher education remains one of the best pathways to long term economic security for families with low incomes and their children. Colleges know their students need help with their basic needs, and administrators desperate to help their rising numbers of hungry students are eager to offer real relief beyond food pantries — but not just for humanitarian reasons. For colleges themselves, these changes will help stabilize enrollment; we know financial distress is a primary driver of drop-outs, and colleges need tuition dollars to weather COVID-19 and the accompanying recession. Local communities where institutions are the keystone employer rise and fall on the survival of these schools.

The economic implications of a state-level administrative change to SNAP extend beyond individuals and colleges. Job growth after COVID-19 is expected to replicate the recovery from the 2008 recession in which the vast majority of new jobs created went to those with some form of education beyond high school. Local and state governments must push toward their workforce and college attainment goals to participate in the next wave of economic growth. For states, this is a way to maximize federal dollars during a crisis where Washington seems unlikely to provide a new bailout — and to do so in support of higher education and workforce goals. 

Beyond the extraordinary opportunity to leverage existing federal dollars without appropriations and legislative wrangling, this state-level administrative change presents a rare bipartisan opportunity for governors and their teams: they can support economic recovery and fight poverty, essentially for free. Even in 2020, not everything has to be difficult.  

Abigail Seldin is the CEO and co-founder of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which funds and incubates public interest projects to serve the new college majority. A Rhodes Scholar and  Forbes “30 under 30,” she previously founded College Abacus and SwiftStudent.

Carrie Welton is the director of Policy and Advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Her career has focused on using evidence and research to improve federal and state policies that reduce basic needs and insecurity of people with low incomes, including students of color, parenting, first-generation and immigrant students.