New Paper Examines How Colleges Can Help Close the ‘SNAP Gap’ for Students

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

Nearly 1 in 3 college students are struggling to meet their basic food needs, and a new issue paper is looking to help identify the ways in which policymakers and institutions can better ensure that vulnerable families have access to programs that provide basic safety nets.

An issue paper from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice looks to provide clarity on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program by outlining its eligibility parameters and explaining how those qualifications vary by student age and the state in which a student resides. A significant number of people eligible for benefits — about 18%, according to a Department of Agriculture report cited in the Hope Center’s brief — do not participate in SNAP. And for college students, that so-called “SNAP gap” may be much wider than the general population, the Hope Center report argues.

“Unfortunately, policymakers have enacted strict limits on student eligibility for SNAP, likely exacerbating the high rates of food insecurity and creating a wide SNAP gap for college students,” the report says. “As data on student basic needs insecurity has become more widely available and student demographics shifted, a clearer picture of pervasive economic hardship in college emerged.”

Although lawmakers worked to remove some barriers due to the pandemic and allow some college students to qualify for SNAP, doing so added complexity to an already arduous process.

The report goes on to include ways in which states can work to close the SNAP gap and remove confusion over eligibility requirements with case studies and rubrics to help maximize program’s accessibility.

The paper provides more context as to how students easily get confused by the program, which has complicated eligibility requirements set by the federal government and variations from state to state in how the program requirements are interpreted and administered.

The paper then details how institutions of higher education can remove barriers by using institutional data to make specific students aware of SNAP as a resource.

For financial aid offices, the report urges colleges to use FAFSA data to help identify students who could benefit from SNAP and conduct targeted outreach to assist those students in enrolling.

“While states have a responsibility to maximize SNAP flexibility for students, colleges can also help connect more students with low incomes to SNAP and close the SNAP gap,” the report says. “Colleges can address major obstacles to SNAP enrollment of potentially eligible students: lack of knowledge of the benefit, confusion over program eligibility requirements, and stigma around applying for public benefits.”


Publication Date: 1/31/2023

Susan A | 2/7/2023 5:48:33 PM

Both comments already made are correct. Students do need help in this area and our offices don't have the time/resources to help students navigate. If you are fortunate to have a campus resource center or food shelf, they can be great partners in this area. The struggle becomes how do you help with outreach and still maintain data privacy.

Matt M | 1/31/2023 4:37:41 PM

Throwing up a wall and doing nothing is not the solution either. We cannot solve poverty, and this article is not claiming to do so. It is trying to say that there is potentially a significant number of students on our campuses who may qualify for SNAP and are unaware. Spending some time to identify those high-need students to send targeted communication about the potential for SNAP benefits is not an unreasonable suggestion.

If a student's basic needs are not being met, the vast majority of what we do in our offices is irrelevant, as they will not succeed. Wondering where your next meal will come from takes priority over school most of the time.

David S | 1/31/2023 1:32:10 PM

We all want to see important safety net programs reach everyone who needs them. But here's my problem with how this is being framed by the Hope Center (and this has been a theme of theirs for years). Financial aid offices are already stretched to our limits by administering complex programs with confusing application systems and eligibility standards; what's being suggested is that we add SNAP expertise to our toolkits...while acknowledging that it's a complex programs with confusing application systems and eligibility standards. Like financial literacy and anything else with a dollar sign attached to it, everyone assumes that the Financial Aid Office can just take it on in addition to everything else we do. And then when something goes wrong, when a low income student is denied benefits or fails to apply or makes errors in applying or things get delayed, who's asked what went wrong? Who's asked to fix it? It's frustrating enough being held accountable for student loans and Pell Grants and the whole problem with college affordability, we should be held accountable for whether or not students get enough to eat?

And of course this is all at a time when many colleges struggle to keep the Financial Aid Office fully staffed, as people leave the field because it's too complicated, too stressful and it doesn't pay particularly well.

We can help students and families as they try to figure out how to pay for college (we do that quite well despite the complexity and insufficient funds). We can't solve poverty.

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