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Reexamining SNAP Policies for College Students

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This is the third in a series regarding food insecurity among the student population. Read Food Insecurity on College Campuses and Innovative Initiatives on College Campuses Addressing Food Insecurity for more insight into this subject.


When it comes to alleviating hunger on college campuses, one major policy worth considering is giving students access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—the federal nutrition assistance program that provides food benefits to low-income Americans. SNAP eligibility criteria has considerable ramifications for college students and their ability to access food. 


SNAP, formerly known as “Food Stamps,”provided benefits to 40 million recipients in 2018, making it the largest federal nutrition assistance program and important to addressing food insecurity in the United States. However, SNAP recipients must meet several fairly rigid eligibility requirements, which limit the amount of food insecure people who are able to access the program. Approximately 1 out of 3 people who are food insecure do not qualify for federal programs, which suggests a need to reexamine eligibility requirements in order to reach those in need. It is especially important to consider college students. This population faces unique challenges in receiving SNAP benefits due to their student status, which makes it necessary to meet a number of additional eligibility requirements to receive benefits. 


SNAP eligibility for College Students

Eligibility for college students to receive SNAP is dependent on a number of factors that can make it unclear and confusing to confirm SNAP eligibility. Generally, SNAP eligibility is based on monthly income. However, historical policies—established when the college student population was made up of proportionately more traditional college students with substantial family support—were put into place to exclude college students from qualifying for SNAP based on monthly income alone. These historical policies still prevent many college students from meeting SNAP requirements when they really needed support. 


Unfortunately, the federal policy for SNAP eligibility among college students means that able-bodied students ages 18-49 enrolled in college at least half-time are not eligible to receive SNAP benefits. 


Exceptions to federal SNAP eligibility requirements for College Students

There are a few exceptions to this rule that do allow many non-traditional and low-income college students to receive SNAP benefits. A college student may otherwise be eligible for SNAP if they meet any of these requirements (USDA):

  • Are working at least 20 hours a week or taking part in a state or federally financed work-study program

  • A parent or caregiver

  • Age or disability status (outside of the age range 18-49)

  • Receive public assistance benefits under a Title IV-A program, like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)

  • Are assigned to a college through specific employment or training programs 


The USDA and The Center for Law and Policy both provide further breakdowns on SNAP eligibility for college students. 


It is worth noting that SNAP restrictions do not apply to students who are attending college less than half-time, as defined by the individual school. Further, federal financial aid does not count as income for SNAP benefits if designed towards educational expenses (tuition, textbooks, and fees). This includes Pell grants, Stafford loans, and Perkins loans. Specific state requirements should also be examined to check for other unique requirements or exemptions.


SNAP Expansion in College Students

The current federal SNAP requirement guidelines allow for only about 18 percent of college students to be eligible, and only 3 percent of college students actually do receive benefits. Given the high food insecurity estimates in the college student population, along with the many barriers to meeting SNAP eligibility requirements, it is important to simplify the enrollment process and expand SNAP eligibility. 


Policy Change to Expand SNAP for College Students

Several methods could be used to simplify and expand SNAP benefits for college students, including those proposed in the College Student Hunger Act of 2019 and in the analyses by Young Invincibles and The Hope Center:


Increase outreach and awareness of student eligibility: Increasing the outreach that notifies college students they could be eligible for SNAP can help eligible students apply and more easily use their benefits. Outreach could be improved on both a state and institutional level. State policy could center around developing mobile and electronic platforms for students to manage their benefits. On an institutional level, an updated policy could better inform students of SNAP eligibility through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) management system that institutions already have access to in order to deliver financial aid packages.


Expand eligibility to allow low-income college students to apply for SNAP: On a federal level, policy should change to allow specific groups to apply for SNAP. This should include Pell grant eligible students as well as independent students—such as those in foster care, those who are veterans, or are homeless. This will allow SNAP benefits to better reach students in need. 


Revisit the work requirement: Changing the federal SNAP eligibility policy to either remove or lower the 20-hour a week work requirement would allow more college students in need to be eligible for benefits. Alternatively, redefining the work requirement qualifications to recognize a college students’ course work load as part of their work requirements could also help to expand SNAP benefits to college students.


Revisit the rule that excludes students living on campus who receive campus meals from accessing SNAP: Currently, a federal policy excludes students who live on campus but receive an on-campus meal plan from being eligible to receive SNAP. Removing this rule is important because it would allow college students to receive SNAP benefits at times during the year when meal services are not in operation, such as winter and summer break.


Allow SNAP to be used more widely on campus: Presently, SNAP cannot be used to buy prepared foods or to pay for college cafeteria meal plans. Changing the federal policy to allow students to buy prepared food from dining halls or apply benefits through student meal plans would allow it to be more useful. Furthermore, institutional level changes that allow federal nutrition benefits to be accepted at on-campus grocery stores would allow students with SNAP to more easily access food.  Oregon State University and Humboldt State University are examples of institutions which now allow federal nutrition benefits like SNAP to be accepted directly on campus grocery stores.


SNAP eligibility requirements for college students are difficult to navigate, in part due to continually changing policies at the federal level. Advocating for changes that expand and simplify SNAP eligibility requirements for college students will better help address food security challenges in this population. While the expansion of SNAP alone will not solve food insecurity, policy change by Congress could greatly help. In combination with institutional programs aimed at addressing food insecurity at a community level, improved access to healthy food on college campuses is possible.  


Written by:

Robyn Garratt, MPH Candidate. Robyn served an internship with Community Commons and currently lives in Virginia.


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Campus Well Being Guide
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Beyond the Food Pantry: Supporting Students with Access to SNAP
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"I'm hungry all the time": How Hunger Has Reached Crisis Level on College Campuses
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Published on 09/13/2020
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Food Insecurity on College Campuses
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Innovative Initiatives on College Campuses Addressing Food Insecurity
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