Poverty & Safety Net
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Need to address college student hunger gains well-deserved attention and momentum

June 28, 2021
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Throughout the pandemic, federal and state government have worked together to ensure that individuals and families impacted by this unprecedented time in history were not plagued by food insecurity. Much of this work involved guaranteeing that those already eligible for benefits had numerous ways to access food, that the benefit was sufficient for a household’s size, and that beneficiaries were not disenrolled from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with the suspension of administrative deadlines.  

The only flexibility allotted to states that expanded SNAP eligibility to individuals previously barred from food assistance came from The Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), 2021 which allowed many low-income college students access to SNAP for the first time, albeit temporarily.

 The only flexibility allotted to states that expanded SNAP eligibility to individuals previously barred from food assistance came from The Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Upon hearing this announcement, Community Solutions collaborated with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and the Ohio Department of Higher Education to provide guidance to the state’s numerous institutions of higher education on how to maximize this opportunity to combat food insecurity on all Ohio campuses.  

This guidance included actions that institutions and their financial aid offices can take to ensure that students are aware of the benefits for which they are newly eligible, and that students have the information they need to access those benefits. Key recommendations were to include information about SNAP in student financial aid award letters and coordinate with student organizations to publicize SNAP eligibility through familiar channels.  

A survey conducted at the beginning of the pandemic by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University concluded that nearly three in five students were experiencing basic needs insecurity, and food insecurity affected 44 percent of students at two-year institutions and 38 percent of students at four-year institutions. We know that even prior to the pandemic, financial strain and college affordability were among the primary reasons people don’t pursue higher education and why many current students don’t finish. Although many Ohio institutions including Columbus State Community College and Cleveland State University have created student food pantries in the past few years as the issue of food insecurity has become more prominent, SNAP benefits have long been America’s first line of defense against hunger, preventing many Americans from facing food insecurity.

 More than 7.5 million college students are 25 years old and older and more than one in five college students are parents themselves.

Prior to the passage of CAA, “traditional” college students, those attending a higher education program full-time, were ineligible for benefits as they were believed to be receiving financial support from their parents, despite their personally having little-to-no income. Research has proven, however, that this stereotype is far from representative of most college students as about two thirds of high school graduates enroll in college immediately after high school; of those, few have a financial safety net. More than 7.5 million college students are 25 years old and older and more than one in five college students are parents themselves. The rise in student accommodations such as night and online courses, as well as greater accessibility to community colleges, means more students are entering higher education with unique situations that are not considered by the traditional SNAP regulations.  

The new flexibilities, in effect until 30-days after the current federal public health emergency declaration is lifted, remove the presumptive bar on student eligibility for students enrolled more than half-time who either:

  1. Are “eligible to participate in a state or federally financed work study program during the regular school year as determined by the institution of higher education,” (previously students had to be actively participating in work study to qualify) or
  2. “in the current academic year, have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 as determined in accordance with part F of Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1087kk et.seq).”Following our public information campaign to spread the word about the new flexibilities, we surveyed individual Ohio institutions to determine, to their knowledge, to what extent food insecurity is a problem for their students, what they’re doing to address it, and how food insecurity impacts student success. Of the 53 unique institutions that responded, the average rank of how critical food security is for student retention and success on a scale of 1-10 was 6.8, with public institutions averaging the importance at 7.9.
 The most common actions Ohio’s colleges and universities are taking include having a food pantry on campus, regularly assessing basic needs or food security on campus, and partnering with a local foodbank to provide mobile food distributions on campus.

A majority of responding institutions, 78 percent, indicated that their institution has committed to helping their students with food security in at least one way. The most common actions Ohio’s colleges and universities are taking include having a food pantry on campus, regularly assessing basic needs or food security on campus, and partnering with a local foodbank to provide mobile food distributions on campus. While there were mixed responses about whether institutions are effectively reaching students to help them enroll in SNAP, a majority of respondents shared the steps they have taken to do so, including many of the steps recommended by our coalition, such as directly contacting all students with an EFC of $0 notifying them of their potential eligibility, and using social media platforms to promote awareness about college student SNAP eligibility.  

While the CAA expanded SNAP eligibility to many low-income college students temporarily, prior to the legislation’s passage there was a small subset of low-income college students already eligible for the program. However, because of hurdles that included stigma and a complex application process, fewer than four out of 10 students nationwide who appear to be eligible for SNAP are receiving it. If students are enrolled in courses at least half-time they may have already qualified for SNAP if they meet one of 10 SNAP student exemptions. These include being responsible for a dependent child under 6, participating in a work-study program or being unable to work due to health reasons.  

We know the needs of college students, and the expense involved in pursuing higher education, have changed tremendously over time, requiring more services and financial aid than ever before. Ohio is home to some of the most distinguished institutions of higher education in the country, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, numerous community and technical colleges and our world-renowned land-grant universities. But the cost of obtaining a college degree, though a worthwhile investment, can still be expensive. After adjusting for inflation, the national average cost for undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board has more than doubled since 1964, from $10,040 to $23,835 in 2018. Tuition at public and private non-profit institutions has gone up 65% and 50%, respectively, since 2000. Coincidentally, the need for higher education has also changed over the last few decades, whereas in 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in our economy require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. To attract students nationwide to Ohio’s institutions and keep Ohio’s high school graduates in our state as they seek additional credentialing we must continue shining a light on food security on campus as student retention, and the future success of our workforce, depend on it.

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