Amidst record high unemployment and unprecedented disruptions to services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government acted quickly to get emergency financial assistance to those who needed it the most. This action included the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), $70 billion in one-time federal grants to institutions of higher education for financial assistance to students in need. To help address food insecurity, Congress also temporarily expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for college students who had an expected family contribution of zero or were eligible for work study. These temporary programs filled gaps beyond the COVID-19 emergency, contributing not only to the well-being of college students, but increasing their persistance and completion.
Analysis of HEERF outcomes have shown that these funds helped keep students enrolled in college and on their way to completing their degree. CHEPP’s new report, Does Basic Needs Funding Improve Persistence Among College Students? outlines how learners receiving HEERF grants at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) were as much as 15 percent more likely to stay enrolled the following semester, indicating a significant impact for basic needs access on student success. Data showed that SNHU HEERF recipients were most likely to use their grants on basic life necessities, with the top three expenses being housing, food, and transportation.
SNHU was not alone in its findings. Analyzing distribution of HEERF’s third round of funding, Western Governors University found an 11.2 percent increase in graduation 12 months after students received funding. Looking at HEERF across 4,600 institutions of higher education, the U.S. Department of Education’s 2021 HEERF Performance Review reported that approximately 9 out of 10 institutions found that HEERF contributed to preventing students from stopping out of their program.
While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and shined a light on the importance of meeting basic needs, too many students have and will continue to struggle to complete their degrees while facing food or housing insecurity or other needs gaps. The recently released 2019-20 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found that 22.6 percent of undergraduate students report low or very low food security and 8 percent report being homeless in the prior month. Instead of being able to focus on their studies, nearly a quarter of college students are wondering where they will get their next meal.
Taking Action on College Student Food Insecurity
Many colleges operate food banks and meal plan swipe programs on their campuses to help address student hunger. While these efforts are important, they leave out many students in need. Roughly 30 percent of all undergraduate students are enrolled at two-year community colleges, few of which live on campus. In addition, fewer students have access to a place-based campus at all, with more than 4 million students attending college online. Today’s learners increasingly have other obligations that impact their access to place-based benefits; fewer than 24 percent are parents, 64 percent work, and 6 percent are military connected. While many colleges have staff to help students apply for public means-tested benefits, including SNAP, meeting the basic needs of these learners requires action at every level.
For over 80 years, SNAP and its predecessor, Food Stamps, have provided food security to individuals, most often during periods of unemployment and underemployment. SNAP has also provided support for students. Unfortunately, in the 1970s Congress enacted strict and confusing student eligibility standards making it harder for college students to access SNAP. This change was based on a belief that students have access to other supports, either from family or financial aid. This belief unfortunately lingers despite evidence of need among learners and rising student debt. SNAP’s confusing eligibility criteria leaves many students who may be eligible not applying and without assistance, with one Government Accountability Office report finding that more than half of college students eligible for SNAP do not apply.
Congress can update the SNAP program to make it easier for students in need to qualify for food assistance and improve their financial well-being while pursuing a college credential. It is incumbent on policymakers to use what has been learned from HEERF and the expansion of other benefit programs during the pandemic to find sustainable ways to meet college students’ basic needs going forward. When students don’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs, they are able to focus on their studies and are more likely to stay enrolled and graduate. An investment in student access to basic needs support is an investment in our nation’s workforce and economy.
To help advocate for students to qualify for SNAP – CLICK HERE.