GAO: Better SNAP Guidance Could Reduce Student Hunger

By Carrie Welton 

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examines food insecurity on college campuses, including efforts to reduce student hunger as well as barriers to assistance.

The report was requested by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA); Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee; and Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. It builds on recent research and efforts across the nation to address college-completion barriers for students with low incomes experiencing food and housing insecurity.

The GAO report adds to a growing body of research regarding undergraduate students and food insecurity. It finds most students (71 percent) have at least one characteristic—such as single parenting or working part time—that make it hard to attend college. As a result, they’re less likely to finish school than “traditional” undergraduate students, who often attend full time, don’t work during the school year, and/or receive support from their parents.

The GAO also confirmed that, despite rising college costs, the percentage of students from low-income households enrolling in college continues to increase. This reflects an understanding that well-paying jobs require credentials beyond high school. However, the path isn’t easy. Food insecurity is prevalent on college campuses and those at greatest risk are students with low incomes (39 percent of all undergraduate students).  The majority of students with low incomes experience additional factors, like being a first-generation student (31 percent of students) or a single parent (14 percent of students), that exacerbate their risk of being food insecure. 

Food insecurity is associated with a range of negative health consequences that interfere with student’s ability to attend and complete college. The Food and Nutrition Service’s (FNS) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides nutrition assistance to people with low incomes. SNAP and other public benefits can increase students’ financial stability and improve their likelihood of completing degrees or certificates.

SNAP has specific rules that determine which low-income students can receive food assistance. But according to the GAO, these rules are very confusing. That’s led to misinformation among postsecondary institutions and students. The report includes interviews with 14 colleges, 9 of which didn’t fully understand SNAP’s student rules. Some states have tried to address this confusion. However, the report finds that 57 percent of potentially eligible students (those who have low incomes, and at least one additional risk factor for food insecurity) are not enrolled in the program. The GAO recommends that FNS provide clearer guidance around SNAP’s student eligibility rules. 

For students with low incomes, removing barriers to SNAP and other public benefits can reduce food insecurity and improve student success. CLASP has strongly advocated to improve public benefit access, as well as developed a state policy framework that supports low-income students. We urge policymakers to prioritize education in programs that serve people with low incomes. And we continue to work with states to increase the ability of students who need SNAP to enroll in the program.