Resources & Publications

It is Too Hard for Students to Access Financial Assistance

Feb 19, 2013

By Abigail Newcomer and Lavanya Mohan

"I was able to lift [my son] Nathan and myself out of poverty by finishing school. SNAP was a critical factor in my success. Having SNAP benefits allowed me to focus energy on school so that I could support us. I am no longer stressed over purchasing food. I graduated from community college with two associate degrees and was the student speaker at commencement. I went on to receive my bachelor's and master's degrees... [Yet,] for the longest time I would not tell anyone that I went hungry or that I receive SNAP benefits. I was scared I would be judged."

Testimony of Tara Marks, a former SNAP recipient

Last week, during a hearing on the impact of federal budget decisions on families and communities, the Senate Budget Committee heard from Tara Marks, a mom who is now a law student, but was once living in poverty while pursuing her postsecondary education. Despite being dedicated to her family and education, and her struggles with financial stress and hunger, Ms. Marks was unable to access food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with her first application. This was due to complicated rules and requirements that apply to students seeking assistance through the program, along with a caseworker who made her feel like she should not be applying for these benefits.

Image sourced from "How WIC Helped Tara Marks Get to Law School" by Robin Stephenson, Bread for the World.

When she did access SNAP, with help from a local hunger organization, it became a vital support for completing her degree. As Ms. Marks explained, "SNAP was a critical factor in my success. Having SNAP benefits allowed me to focus energy on school so that I could support us [myself and my son]." An increasing share of college students are, like Ms. Marks, adults who must support themselves and their families.  Nearly half (47 percent) of all post-secondary students live independently from their parents; 40 percent fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level; and 23 percent are parents.

While many nontraditional students are eligible to receive assistance from safety net programs, many do not enroll due to a lack of information, stigma and the feeling that the assistance is not worth the time it takes to apply. These students are instead working while in school, and are often dropping out when unexpected expenses like a car repair or a medical bill arise.

Removing red tape and easing stringent rules that apply only to students could help more students make ends meet so they can stay in school and succeed in completing their degrees. In addition, colleges could assist with completion by helping more students access existing supports. Under Benefits Access for College Completion, CLASP is supporting seven community colleges that are experimenting with innovative strategies of integrating screening and application assistance for public benefits with services and supports the colleges already provide, like financial aid counseling, and registration and enrollment assistance. The goal of the initiative is to increase the number of students who earn postsecondary credentials, as a result of receiving the financial and personal support they need.

Safety net programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid or child care subsidies, can serve as temporary help to reduce low-income students' financial burdens. When students successfully graduate, they are more likely to secure jobs that enable them to support their families and pay increased taxes.  And the best way out of poverty is through improved education and job skills that lead to more stable and better-paying jobs.

In ongoing discussions about the best ways of reducing federal spending and balancing the budget, CLASP urges Congress to remember the experiences of Ms. Marks and thousands of other students like her. Congress should preserve funding for safety net programs that provide vital supports for low-income families as they work to better their lives.

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