Latest COVID Relief Bill Provides Increased Access to SNAP for College Students

By Ashley Burnside

The latest COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress will allow college students with low incomes to more easily access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits – temporarily removing strict work and eligibility requirements for students. This is especially important given that unemployment rates are high, especially in the restaurant and entertainment sectors, and that many students are learning remotely and are no longer near available campus jobs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased food insecurity rates throughout the nation. SNAP provides monthly food assistance benefits to people with low incomes to help them afford food and feed their families. But SNAP is not easily accessible to college students with low incomes, despite high levels of need, and they are increasingly likely to be food insecure. 

Before the pandemic, 48 percent of college students reported being food insecure during the previous thirty days, with students of color being disproportionately impacted. In addition, more than 1 in 4 college students are parents who need to support their children and balance caretaking responsibilities while also attending classes. And more than half of students are financially independent from their parents. But despite these high levels of need, according to a GAO report, 57 percent of students who are potentially eligible for SNAP did not receive benefits in 2016. 

Before Congress passed this COVID relief bill, if a student attended college at least half-time, in addition to meeting the SNAP income eligibility requirements, they also had to meet at least one additional criteria for eligibility. That could include participating in work study, raising a child (within certain age limits), or receiving a benefit under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), among others. (You can read our CLASP SNAP student FAQ to learn about the other eligibility conditions.) If the student didn’t meet any of those criteria, they would need to work at least 20 hours per week to be eligible. Recognizing the loss of many jobs that employ students, 30 states (and the District of Columbia) asked the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to waive these student restrictions this spring. But FNS did not grant these waivers.

In the COVID-19 relief bill, the SNAP student work requirements are temporarily waived if students either:

•    (1) Are eligible for federal or state-funded work study programs during the regular school year or,
•    (2) Have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 during the current academic year.

This temporary change will remain in effect until thirty days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted. This expansion will allow many more students to be eligible for SNAP who would face burdens in finding employment during the economic downturn. 

Under the new criteria, it should be easier for students to prove SNAP eligibility. Financial aid offices should make it as simple as possible for the students to access their EFC information and work-study eligibility on their financial aid portal and award notices. New Jersey has a financial aid "shopping sheet" that colleges give to students to increase financial aid transparency. The form provides a good example of how financial aid offices can make the EFC information clear and easy to find for students. Human services agencies should accept a range of ways for students to verify their eligibility, including prints or screenshots from financial aid portals. Colleges should also conduct outreach to their students to inform them of these changes and notify them that they may be eligible for SNAP under this temporary legislation, and how to apply. 

These temporary changes to increase SNAP participation will help students complete their education, reduce their food insecurity, and promote local economic activity. We applaud lawmakers for including this provision in the COVID relief bill and encourage them to permanently remove the student work requirement in SNAP. Students with low incomes should not have to work more than half time to afford food, while obtaining their education. Allowing students to focus on their education without worrying about where their next meal is coming from would benefit students, their families, and our economy in the years ahead.