By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
A small provision included in the latest round of federal coronavirus relief aid could have a big impact on the wellbeing of college students across the country.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was expanded as part of the sweeping relief package to allow college students to more easily access the program, temporarily removing work and eligibility requirements for students — a change that will be in place for the duration of the public health emergency due to the coronavirus.
The provision lifted certain exemptions to the federal criteria for students to be eligible for the program, making it possible for students with an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 on their financial aid application, or those who are eligible for state or federal work-study to enroll for SNAP under the temporarily expanded eligibility criteria, meaning about 3 million more students will be eligible for assistance, according to an estimate from The Century Foundation.
Previously, 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 eligibility requirement, such as participating in work-study, being a primary caregiver for a dependent child, or receiving a benefit under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), among others. The expanded eligibility will remain in place until 30 days after the public health emergency ends.
While SNAP is a federal program, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law in March at the onset of the pandemic gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to allow states to temporarily modify criteria to make it easier for more families and individuals to continue participating in or apply for SNAP, providing states with much needed flexibilities.
The changes come at a pivotal time, as rates of individuals reporting feeling food insecure rose due to the ongoing pandemic, with nearly one-third of college students saying they have experienced food insecurity since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a recent survey from Chegg.org.
Some states were already seeing an increased demand for SNAP benefits even before the expansion was enacted. In Pennsylvania, enrollment in the program increased by nearly 5% since last February and officials expect numbers to increase even more with the expanded eligibility criteria.
But the relief for students in the form of expanded SNAP benefits will be for naught if students aren’t aware it exists, The Century Foundation noted. While the federal aid package Congress passed in late December does require the Department of Education (ED) to notify FAFSA filers and currently enrolled students of the provision, experts say more is needed for students to know they are eligible.
In an effort to let potentially eligible students know they qualify, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) suggests financial aid offices make it simple for students to access their EFC information and work-study eligibility on their award notices and financial aid information.
“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,” Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst at CLASP, wrote in a blog post.
Since students still need to apply for SNAP, institutions — and more specifically financial aid offices — should be proactive in reaching out to students that are likely eligible for the program, encouraging them to apply and including the information necessary to submit an application, Burnside added.
Some states are proactively spreading the word about the expanded eligibility, such as Pennsylvania, which issued a release notifying the public and students of the program and outlining the additional students who now qualify.
New Jersey’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority published a “shopping sheet” that is distributed to all institutions and shows how financial aid offices can prominently display a student’s EFC so they are able to more easily determine if they are eligible for SNAP. The state also put all applicable information regarding student eligibility for the expanded program in an easily accessible flyer, which is targeted toward college students.
The State University of New York earlier this month launched a program to auto-enroll roughly 10,000 students to receive benefits under SNAP. New York expanded eligibility to college students enrolled half-time in technical, career, and remedial programs, making about 75,000 additional students eligible for benefits.
The move is meant to enroll students who are eligible for assistance, but who may have not signed up for the program or not known about it after the state expanded the program on its own back in October.
Michigan and several other states have expanded eligibility for SNAP amid the pandemic, but the provision in the federal relief package temporarily expands the eligibility criteria nationwide.
Swipe Out Hunger, a national anti-student hunger organization, has found success raising awareness around the issue of food insecurity and helping students understand that they may be eligible for SNAP with peer-to-peer services, where trained students can help others navigate the application process and find additional resources.
Additionally, the trained peers assisting students also help break down the stigma long associated with using campus food banks or pantries. The Chegg survey found that 64% of students said there is a stigma tied with utilizing a food bank.
While the temporary expansion is a welcome move, proponents of the measure are hoping the Biden administration goes a step further and makes the changes permanent.
“We applaud lawmakers for including this provision in the COVID relief bill and encourage them to permanently remove the student work requirement in SNAP,” Burnside urged.
Publication Date: 2/22/2021