Farm Bill SNAP Solutions: Modernizing SNAP for College Students

By: Neeta Sonalkar, Director of Higher Education Innovation

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) released our recommendations for how to streamline access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the 2023 Farm Bill. To explain our recommendations, we have developed a special blog series. Below is the third in the series, which focuses on core changes to modernize SNAP for college students.

Every day, millions of college students across the country face a series of unimaginable choices: Put food on the table or pay for a textbook? Bring my 2-year-old child to campus or pay a babysitter? Fill this prescription or save the money for my internet bill so I can attend class and submit assignments?

Today’s college students look entirely different than they did 30 years ago: half are financially independent from their parents, and 1 in 5 are parents themselves. Often juggling multiple commitments to earn their degree while making ends meet, many are stretched thin and struggling to afford basic necessities like food, healthcare, or housing. In fall 2020, almost 40 percent of students at two-year institutions faced food insecurity, and 48 percent faced housing insecurity.

"The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our country’s first line of defense against hunger, is underutilized by students: more than 2 million students who are eligible for SNAP are not enrolled." – Neeta Sonalkar, Director of Higher Education Innovation

Yet the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our country’s first line of defense against hunger, is underutilized by students: more than 2 million students who are eligible for SNAP are not enrolled. That amounts to $3 billion left on the table each year in dollars that could help them afford college. Many factors impede a student’s ability to enroll and graduate, but the biggest hurdle is affordability.

One of the reasons this enrollment gap exists is that SNAP eligibility rules for college students are outdated and highly complex. Students – many of whom are not even aware they may be eligible for SNAP – must qualify for one of several confusing “exemptions,” or rules. In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office characterizes student exemptions as one of the most complex areas of SNAP eligibility. Students then must submit numerous documents to verify the information they’ve provided during the application process.  

Since 2019, BDT has supported colleges in identifying eligible students and providing screening and application submission support to cut through the confusion and help students access SNAP. Our benefits access toolkit for higher education is designed with insights from our relationships with colleges, state systems, and experts in the field.  

But to meaningfully close that $3 billion gap and reduce unnecessary burden for colleges and state SNAP agencies, core changes are needed in how the SNAP program works for students. BDT recommends that Congress modernize SNAP for college students in ways that make it easier for eligible students to self-identify and for schools and administrators to notify and verify those students’ eligibility.  

Our recommendations include:  

  • Updating SNAP eligibility language so that it is more intuitive to understand 
  • Exploring data sharing opportunities to conduct targeted outreach to eligible students 
  • Adding exemptions that simplify SNAP eligibility for students with need, schools, and SNAP administrators, including by making it easier to identify and verify student eligibility

Please visit our Farm Bill recommendations to learn more and reach out to us at to discuss opportunities for improving benefits access for students.  

By reforming how students access SNAP, we can help them keep working toward their degree so they can build careers and greater economic mobility.

In July, nearly 50 organizations joined BDT to sign a letter to Congress with four recommendations to modernize SNAP eligibility for college students in the 2023 Farm Bill. Read the letter here.