More college students now qualify for SNAP benefits

Low-income college students temporarily will face fewer barriers to obtaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits under provisions included in the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in late December. SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamps program, provides monthly food assistance benefits that can be used to help address basic needs insecurity. 

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated college students’ financial struggles and separated many from their campus dining halls and jobs, the latest legislation eases the ordinarily strict work and eligibility requirements for which students can receive SNAP benefits. It also increases SNAP maximum allotments by nearly 15 percent during the first half of 2021. 

A short-term reprieve from complex eligibility requirements

Previously, students had to attend college at least half time; meet income eligibility thresholds; and fulfill at least one other requirement, such as receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, participating in work-study, raising a child of a certain age, or working at least 20 hours a week. 

Related: SNAP changes expected to add confusion, restrictions >

Advocates say the complexities of qualifying for SNAP have dampened participation among college students; just over half of potentially eligible students were accessing SNAP benefits as of 2016, according to the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Recognizing that many students have lost income and employment during the pandemic, the latest bill waives the work requirements for students who are enrolled in college at least 20 hours a week and are from families with an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 or who are eligible for federal or state-funded work-study programs. 

The provision “allows students who are enrolled at least half-time to receive benefits, which is unprecedented quite honestly,” Shavana Howard, an assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, told KPLC News.

The news comes as colleges across the nation struggle to meet growing demands for food and other basic needs assistance for their students. Students attending community colleges are especially likely to be food insecure, and the pandemic has only made things more difficult, Inside Higher Ed reports. 

CLASP notes that increased SNAP participation will not only help students afford food but also reduce the chance that their studies will be sidelined by excessive work hours or hunger. “​If students are hungry or don’t have a place to go home to, then certainly learning is not at the forefront of their priorities,” Martha Parham, the senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said.

To ensure that low-income students are accessing all available resources, CLASP calls on college financial aid offices to help clear students’ path to SNAP benefits, in part by equipping them with proof of their EFC information and work-study eligibility. CLASP also calls on federal officials to permanently eliminate SNAP’s student work requirement; under the current legislation, the original SNAP requirements will resume 30 days after federal officials lift the COVID-19 public health emergency designation.

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