How the new SNAP exemptions help more college students qualify for assistance

April 12, 2021

Background on College Student Food Insecurity

There is a common misconception that college students cannot, or do not, face food insecurity. When we imagine who attends college, we often think of students fresh out of high school, supported by their middle- to upper-middle-class — often white — parents. We imagine modern dormitories with ample amenities and seemingly unending supplies of cafeteria food, all freely accessible with just the swipe of one’s student ID.

However, given the demographic shift in who attends college, what we previously imagined about college students is no longer in touch with reality, if it ever was. The average age of college students across the U.S. is 26.4 years and 22 percent of undergraduate students have at least one child. Roughly 45 percent of undergraduate students are students of color and 56 percent of undergraduates overall are first-generation students. Most studies of college food insecurity also find that the rates of food insecurity are higher for postsecondary students than the national average for adults. 

A new report from the Hope Center sheds light on the harsh realities facing college students during the pandemic. Throughout 2020, the Hope Center conducted their sixth iteration of the #RealCollege survey and found that across 195,000 respondents from 130 two-year colleges and 72 four-year colleges, students at two-year institutions experienced food insecurity at a rate of 38 percent compared to 29 percent of students at four-year institutions. For students facing basic needs insecurity, including food and housing insecurity, 52 percent did not apply for any assistance because they did not know how. Because many postsecondary institutions shuttered their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students lost access to housing, dining, and child care, and many others lost their jobs or saw a decrease in their work hours. 

Certain college students have always been eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), though an estimated 57 percent of potentially food-insecure students who are eligible to receive SNAP do not collect those benefits. With the recent passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, many more college students became temporarily eligible to receive SNAP benefits. It is crucial that college and university administrators and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) make information about the recent rule change as accessible as possible to those newly eligible students.

Who can now Access SNAP?

Prior to the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, college students seeking SNAP benefits had to meet the preexisting SNAP eligibility requirements, as well as one of the following additional requirements:

  • are the age of 17  or younger, or 50  or older;
  • are physically or mentally unfit (have a disability);
  • receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits;
  • are enrolled in a TANF Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program;
  • work at least 20 hours a week in paid employment;
  • participate in a state or federally financed work study program;
  • participate in an on-the-job training program;
  • care for a child under the age of 6;
  • care for a child age 6 to 11 and do not have adequate child care enabling them to attend school and work 20 hours a week or participate in work study;
  • are a single parent enrolled full-time in college and taking care of a child under 12; or
  • are assigned to or placed in a college or other institution of higher education through:
    • a program under WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014);
    • a program under Section 236 of the Trade Act of 1974 (Trade Adjustment Assistance Program);
    • an employment and training program under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (SNAP E&T); or
    • an employment and training program for low-income households operated by a state or local government, so long as the program has at least one component that is equivalent to a component under SNAP E&T.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 temporarily expands SNAP eligibility to include college students who either:

  • are eligible to participate in state or federally financed work study during the regular academic year, as determined by the institution of higher education; or
  • have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 in the current academic year. This includes students who are eligible for a maximum Pell Grant.

The above temporary exemptions will be in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted. States are required by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to expand eligibility through the implementation of these temporary exemptions. 

Why do These new Exemptions Matter?

One of the previous additional requirements ,which students attending college at least half time may meet in order to become SNAP eligible, was to work at least 20 hours per week. Not only is this a heavy lift for the 50.5 percent of college students who attend school full time, this requirement often comes into direct conflict with individual college or university restrictions surrounding Federal Work-Study (FWS). Many colleges and universities restrict the number of FWS hours students may work during the week, often to just under 20 hours. This could disqualify them from receiving SNAP benefits under the previous rules. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have contributed to job loss among college students. According to a study released by the Hope Center last year, roughly one-third of college students who held a job prior to the pandemic lost their jobs. With the new, temporary exemptions, students need only be eligible for federal- or state-funded work study; they do not need to complete any such hours to actually apply for benefits. 

By making SNAP more accessible to college students facing food insecurity, we are directly combating the COVID-19 pandemic. For years research has indicated that individuals who have successfully completed higher education are in better overall health and have longer life expectancies.

With the new eligibility exemptions in place, the next challenge is ensuring that food-insecure college students, who were previously eligible or are newly eligible for SNAP, understand the rule change and receive adequate support in accessing benefits. That work has begun with important federal leadership from USDA and the Department of Education (ED) in collaboration with institutions of higher learning and other community partners.

What Else can USDA and ED do?

  1. Simplify the language surrounding SNAP eligibility on USDA-FNS and ED’s websites, and create boilerplate simplified language for individual state agencies, SNAP offices, and partners to use as well. One barrier to accessing SNAP is the confusion surrounding complicated eligibility and exemption terminologies.
  2. Continue to work with states on implementing the new exemptions to make certain that SNAP offices are allowing the newly and temporarily eligible college students to access benefits.
  3. Continue to notify colleges and universities to remind these institutions that they may conduct direct outreach to students who are potentially eligible to receive SNAP. 
  4. Provide more support for additional community-based SNAP outreach and application assistance.


What can Colleges and Universities do?

  1. Widely advertise SNAP across campus, making sure that students, faculty, and staff, are aware of the temporary eligibility exemptions. These campaigns should aim to reduce the stigma around accessing benefits as much as possible by citing the number of students nationwide who are food insecure and by reminding potential beneficiaries that SNAP is an entitlement program. Ask student-run organizations and on-campus food pantries to also circulate the information via email, text, and through informational posters at the pantry site. Be sure to advertise that students may receive as much as $234 per month. Advertise the locations of SNAP-approved retailers near the college campus as well.
  2. Notify students whose financial aid packages include an EFC of $0 or FWS eligibility that they may be eligible for SNAP under the new exemptions. Personalize each letter with the student’s name so that the student understands that the letter is indeed intended for them. Again, be sure to destigmatize use of the program. If any financial aid officers or other university administrators, staff, or faculty have had experience with SNAP and would like to include a personal story about the program’s significance, this may also help to reduce stigma. Hyperlinks to or explicit directions for accessing necessary documentation for applying to SNAP should be included, as well as example images of relevant webpages or documents. 
  3. Ensure that financial aid officers know what to do and are able to assist students in determining their eligibility and in finding the necessary documentation. Make sure that financial aid officers are prepared to use destigmatizing language around the program. Financial aid officers should have the appropriate contact information for local SNAP offices and the ability to link students to other states’ offices if the student is attending school remotely. If the COVID-19 pandemic should extend into the next school year, provide the new, temporary SNAP eligibility information to incoming students with their financial aid package.
  4. Use HEERF grant funds to help students with exceptional needs. The new guidance issued for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grant program allows postsecondary institutions to use the funding for the discharge of student debts and the provision of additional student services. The considerable flexibilities in this program’s language should be used by postsecondary institutions to take care of their students with greatest needs.


What can Students do?

  1. Determine their eligibility by looking at USDA-FNS’ checklist of eligibilities and the new, temporary exemptions. Students should be able to reach out to their college or university financial aid office or their local SNAP office for assistance. Additionally, the ED has begun emailing students with an EFC of $0, and that emailed letter can be used by SNAP agencies to confirm their financial eligibility status. Students will still need to meet one of the other eligibility requirements.
  2. If eligible, apply for SNAP benefits. Students should apply for benefits in the state in which they currently reside, even if they are remotely attending a college located in another state. SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that if someone meets the eligibility criteria, they are entitled to those program’s benefits. SNAP is a powerful tool that all eligible individuals should use without fear or stigmatization. 
  3. Educate the public about the problem of food insecurity among college students, disseminate information about the new SNAP relief to their peers and to the broader college community, and center the experience of those in college to inform policy solutions. 
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