COVID-19 Brings Changes to Work-Study – and May Harm Student Access to SNAP

By Lauren Walizer and Ashley Burnside

As the 2020-2021 academic year begins under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the many challenges colleges face is how to operate their federal and state work-study programs. These programs connect students to employment opportunities to meet their costs of attendance and build work experience. The number and type of work-study positions will vary greatly from the past, depending on closures in the local area, the nature of available jobs, and whether students will be on campus. As colleges design their work-study programs, they should be aware that these challenges can have consequences for students’ access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps students afford food while obtaining their education.

SNAP helps people with low incomes purchase food. Studies show that in addition to reducing food insecurity, receiving SNAP benefits reduces stress, which helps students focus on their studies rather than where they will get their next meal. SNAP receipt also allows students to complete a simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). SNAP is a particularly important resource during the pandemic given the increased rates of hunger across the country.

Research indicates that even before the pandemic, one in three college students struggled to meet their food needs, while an estimated 2 million students may have been eligible for SNAP and didn’t receive it. Food insecurity rates have doubled since the pandemic began and have tripled among families with children. Federal law allows students to be eligible for SNAP if they can meet a qualifying exception, which includes being awarded federal or state work-study and “anticipating work.” (Students who don’t meet any of the exceptions must work 20 hours per week to receive SNAP, a requirement that would be impossible for many students to meet during the economic crisis and pandemic.)

This year, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided colleges with additional flexibility in operating their federal work-study (FWS) program. The law allows colleges to move up to 100 percent of their FWS allocation to the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program, which provides grants to students with high financial need. In addition, colleges are not required to provide a 25 percent match to the FWS funding they receive. Under these flexibilities, it’s possible that a college will not award any FWS aid, reserving it all for SEOG. Even if a college continues to offer FWS, without the matching requirement, the overall amount available for FWS awards to students will be less than last year.

Colleges should consider these flexibilities in the context of work-study’s relationship to SNAP. The cost-benefit to providing students with more guaranteed grant aid in SEOG versus an anticipated award like work-study will vary by campus. To the extent work-study is available, colleges should continue awarding it and trying to connect students to employment opportunities, including remote work, to maintain students’ access to SNAP.

State human service agencies should provide guidance to front-line workers and colleges that takes into account the challenges for students inherent in this pandemic. They should assume that students awarded work-study “anticipate working” unless there is specific reason to believe otherwise. 

To help support the broader needs of states, Congress must pass additional federal support for state budgets to prevent deep and damaging budget cuts. If states follow the playbook used for budget cuts in the Great Recession, higher education, including state work-study programs, will be hit especially hard. The effects of these cuts are typically felt most by students of color, immigrant students, and those with low incomes.

Congress must also temporarily waive the SNAP student restrictions, or explicitly direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow state waivers that do so. Earlier this year, 28 states saw the harm being done by the student rules and requested waivers of the student exceptions during the pandemic, which the USDA rejected. In the long term, Congress should accept the truth that access to food assistance shouldn’t be inhibited by someone’s pursuit of a higher education and remove the student restrictions.