It is Too Hard for Students to Access Financial Assistance

Feb 20, 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.

Tara Marks, Bread for the World Activist
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.

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