For College Students Facing Poverty, Policymakers Must Lift Barriers to Economic Support

By Teon Dolby

As a first-generation college student, I was excited about a college degree’s possibilities. My academic success was the least of my worries. Instead, I struggled to pay for expenses such as tuition, housing, food, and books. Grudgingly, I look at my student loan debt and wonder how government assistance programs could have made a significant difference. 

Today, this is the same story facing many college students, with hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, they’re often left out of public programs otherwise designed to help people meet their basic needs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). CLASP recently spoke with young people who made clear it’s time for state and federal policymakers to lift these barriers to their success. They must act to ensure college students can access these programs. 

The EITC is one of the United States’ key anti-poverty programs. It can have a lasting impact by providing slight financial relief through the tax code to some of the nation’s most marginalized populations. Before the 2021 tax year, young workers without children in the household weren’t qualified for the EITC, despite being income eligible. Congress temporarily ended this exclusion with the American Rescue Plan. However, the program’s improvements, along with other critical federal investments such as the Child Tax Credit (CTC), were limited to 2021. And, unfortunately, the new expansions for the EITC did not include most college students. 

Earlier this year, CLASP reached out to young adults (ages 18-24) without qualifying children living with them in the home to learn more about their experience of accessing the new temporary EITC expansion. Our conversations, which took place on Zoom, focused on everyone’s understanding of the tax filing process; their knowledge of the EITC; and the barriers they encountered while accessing the EITC and filing taxes. 

Overwhelmingly, most participants were not eligible to receive the credit because they were college students. A few students did access the credit thanks to the expanded provision, which allowed former foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness to be eligible regardless of their student status. However, in both cases, young adults shared similar stories of being “paranoid” of making a mistake while filing taxes.  

They wished that more support, resources, and outreach materials were available to individuals in their age group. As one participant described,  

“You know, we don’t really know what we’re doing with taxes and that we don’t have the resources or like adults in our lives. You know, it’s not a black and white thing to say, but like a lot of the times, we lack a lot of the resources and adults to help walk us through this.” 

Even with the slight boost in income, it was evident that students with little to no wages—particularly those of color—had difficulties paying for everyday expenses, plus the costs of higher education. But young adults in school also face barriers when trying to apply to basic needs programs, such as SNAP, due to their college status.  

Participants expressed their frustration when speaking of the lack of support from government assistance programs. One respondent put it this way:  

“I’m a college student who’s struggling…and they’re (Members of Congress) not trying to help us in no type of way. “ 

States and federal policymakers can ensure students with low incomes have the support they need. Leaders can lift barriers to public programs such as by expanding eligibility for tax credits, expanding SNAP exemptions for college students, and providing access to income support for students who are also parents.  

The responses from our conversations are consistent with what the data reveals. College students experience high poverty rates, with more than half of students working to support themselves while paying for college and living expenses. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic also exacerbated food insecurity among college students, with almost one-third reporting having missed at least one meal during the pandemic.  

“College is so expensive,” one student shared during our interviews. “…That’s my struggle. Just have a roof over my head.”  

For many individuals from families with low incomes, higher education represents an opportunity for a life with financial security and stability. It is time for institutions and benefit programs to move past the assumptions that college students are adequately supported by their parents and therefore do not need government assistance. This assumption is far from the truth. Policymakers can promote economic security for young people by improving programs so they reflect college students’ realities, granting them access and hope for a successful future.