Connecting Community College Students to SNAP
By Ashley Burnside and Parker Gilkesson of CLASP, and Patricia Baker of MLRI
Students with low incomes have long faced challenges meeting their basic needs. Food insecurity among students has increased during COVID-19, and could persist for months or years for students saddled with educational debt or facing uncertain unemployment. Access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for children has a proven effect on reducing childhood food insecurity, and when students have access to food, their grades improve. Access to SNAP may similarly improve college student retention and academic success when students are nourished while learning.
However, in order to be eligible for SNAP under long-standing federal rules, college students attending at least half-time have had to meet one of the student “exemptions,” as they are known in federal law, in addition to all the regular SNAP eligibility rules. The most common SNAP student exemptions require students ages 18 to 50 to show they are:
- participating in a federal or state work-study program;
- caring for a young child or getting TANF benefits;
- having a disability or impairment;
- already getting SNAP and then placed in a SNAP-approved “employment and training program;” or
- doing paid work for at least 20 hours per week.
More information about college students and SNAP, including the complete list of possible exemptions, can be found in these CLASP and USDA materials (see footnote). For many, the student exemptions are difficult to meet. Unless they are lucky enough to get work study with an anticipated job, many students are faced with proving their SNAP eligibility through working 20 hours per week while also attending college – the so-called “work for food” requirement. This requirement has similarly burdened childless, able-bodied adults seeking SNAP benefits.
This policy report, written jointly by CLASP and MLRI, highlights additional options states have to expand SNAP access to students with low incomes—well beyond the temporary student provisions in the recent COVID-19 relief bill—and minimize saddling students with unfair and unrealistic work requirements.
“We’re going to make sure students have the support they need to cross that finish line. We’re going to invest in programs that prepare our workers for jobs of the future.” First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, People Magazine February 10, 2021
We encourage states to explore key state options while also advocating with Congress for permanent SNAP policy reforms that center the basic needs of their students. Now is a critical time for states to implement bold changes for students.
What Student Hunger Looks Like
College students are not a monolith. Over half of today’s community college students are “nontraditional,” including older students who are financially independent from their parents, as well as first-generation students from low-income families. The image of a “traditional student”—right out of high school, and from a middle-class family that can fully support all of the financial needs of the student while in college—is how the media and elected officials often portray college students. The reality is that the majority of community college students, and a growing number of four-year public college students, are parents of minor children; parents who have finished raising their kids; adults seeking retraining after losing their job; immigrants and “Dreamers” who are first-generation students; students who are homeless; who have aged out of foster care or are returning to college after military service.
“’There are days where I can’t even afford to buy a chip . . . and I know I can go up there [to the food pantry] to get bread,’ said Benitez, who is graduating with two associate’s degrees and was just accepted to Stanford. ‘You can’t study if you are hungry.’” Susan Benitez, 30, an Army veteran and student government president at Bunker Hill Community College. Boston, Massachusetts
Pre-COVID, in a national survey from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, over half of student parents reported facing food insecurity in the prior 30 days. Further, nearly 70 percent of student parents were housing insecure in the previous year, and about one in five reported facing homelessness. Older students reported higher rates of basic needs insecurity, including 74 percent of student respondents, ages 26 to 30. None of this should be surprising, given the ever-rising cost of higher education, cost of living, and the prevalence of low-paid and unstable work.
As a result of COVID, overall enrollment of college students is down by 3.3 percent since the prior school year. For Black and Latinx students, freshman college enrollment has declined by 13 percent, and especially hard hit are community colleges showing a freshman decline of nearly 19 percent. In Massachusetts, the state’s community colleges have found a stunning 30 percent decline in Black and Latino students since Fall 2020. Some students may not have homes they can return to as campuses close, and many have lost their campus jobs indefinitely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated food insecurity. In a national survey, roughly three in five college students have reported they are experiencing basic needs insecurity during the public health crisis. College students have been left with unique and complicated challenges as a result. At the colleges that offered campus-based food pantries, donated “meal swipes” from paid meal plans, or subsidized cafeteria meals, remote learning has caused these options to mostly disappear. Community college students have been especially impacted without the campus supports and community networks that provided them with resources prior to the public health crisis.
At the start of the pandemic, over 30 states and the District of Columbia submitted waiver requests to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to modify or waive the SNAP student exemptions because of these difficulties. The USDA, under the Trump Administration, responded with a blanket denial of these requests. The December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill fortunately created additional SNAP student exemptions, as discussed below—but these exemptions are temporary.
Looking beyond COVID-19, states have several options to remediate hunger among COVID-19- impacted students and the estimated 57 percent of eligible college students who—pre-COVID-19— did not participate in SNAP. For example:
- Massachusetts pioneered one state option in 2010 that permits students in community colleges to qualify for SNAP if their certificate or associate’s degree program is considered either a “career or technical education” program, or if the college determines the student will likely be more employable with the degree or certificate.
- Pennsylvania followed in the footsteps of Massachusetts in 2018, expanding SNAP access for community college students enrolled in career and technical education programs, or where the college determined the student would be more employable.
Other states that have expanded access to community college students in similar ways include New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, and likely a few others.
 K. Mialki, L.A. House, A.E. Mathews and K.P. Shelnutt, “Covid-19 and College Students: Food Security Status before and after the Onset of a Pandemic,” Nutrients, 2021, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13020628. See also Clegg.org study of Oct-Nov 2020: https://www.chegg.org/covid-19-food-insecurity-2020.
 Deborah A. Frank, C. Bruce, and E. Ochoa, “SNAP Is Medicine for Food Insecurity,” Pediatrics, 2020, https://childrenshealthwatch.org/snap-is-medicine-for-food-insecurity/.
 Anna Gassman-Pines and Laura Bellows, “Food Instability and Academic Achievement: A Quasi-Experiment Using SNAP Benefit Timing,” American Educational Research Journal, 2018, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0002831218761337.
 USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), SNAP and Students, updated 02/08/2021, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students. See also Parker Gilkesson, Frequently Asked Questions About SNAP and Students, CLASP, 2020, https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/frequently-asked-questio….
 The National Center for Education Studies defines “non-traditional students” as typically older (average age 24) and “adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives.” See National Center for Educational Studies, Definitions and Data, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs/web/97578e.asp.
 American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Fast Facts, 2020, https://www.aacc.nche.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2018/04/2018-Fast-Facts.pdf
 Sara Goldrick-Rab, C. Baker-Smith, V. Coca, et al., “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report,” The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 2019, https://hope4college.com/college-and-university-basic-needs-insecurity-a….
 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Monthly Update on Higher Education Enrollment, November 2020, https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/.
 Laura Krantz, “Black and Latino enrollment plummets at Massachusetts community colleges,” Boston Globe, 2021, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/02/04/metro/black-latino-enrollment-plu…
 Sara Goldrick-Rab, V. Coca, G. Kienzl, et al., #RealCollege During the Pandemic: New Evidence on Basic Needs Insecurity and Student Well-Being, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 2020, https://hope4college.com/realcollege-during-the-pandemic/.
 USDA Food and Nutrition Service, SNAP– Other Waivers, updated March 2021, https://www.fns.usda.gov/disaster/pandemic/covid-19/snap-other-waivers.
 USDA Food and Nutrition Service, SNAP – Denial of Certain Requests to Adjust SNAP Regulations, April 2020, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/covid-19/denial-certain-state-requests.
 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits, December 2018, https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-19-95.
 Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, P.L 116-260, Section 702(e), https://www.congress.gov/bill/116thcongress/house-bill/133/text. See also USDA, SNAP Provisions in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, December 2020, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/provisions-consolidated-appropriations-act….