Helping Students Secure Basic Needs

| By: Trooper Sanders, Chief Executive Officer

Trooper Quote

Take a walk on a college campus today, and you might be surprised by what you see - today’s students look very different than they did a few decades ago. So many more are parents with young children, or caregivers for older family members. Some are training for new careers, and others are working full time to support themselves and their families while attending class. Yet others are the first in their families to go to college.  

Nationwide, millions of students juggling day-to-day responsibilities struggle to pay for college and afford food, childcare, housing, healthcare and internet service. The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, held on Sept. 28, is an opportunity to make public benefits efficient and effective services, and Benefits Data Trust is grateful to collaborate with the Conference on ways to help more eligible college students access support when they need it. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenge students face: For example, community colleges, which serve large shares of low-income and Black and Hispanic students, saw enrollment drop by almost 20% between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. Add to this toxic mix rising tuition costs and unprecedented inflation - it's a steep battle to not just get admitted to college but to afford to stay.  

The infusion of emergency financial aid dollars, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, along with campus efforts like food pantries and transit passes, soften the blow. But students are more sustainably served by public benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which can deliver to students hundreds of dollars each month to help put food on the table, ensure better health, and help them focus on their studies and graduate. 

But that’s presuming they can access the help. Today, more than $80 billion in assistance goes untapped, leaving millions of people needlessly going hungry, including college students. 

Student SNAP rules are notoriously complex and have given rise to the myth that college students are ineligible for the benefit. Pre-pandemic, an estimated 2 million college students were eligible for but not participating in SNAP - a gap that likely exists because both students and their institutions may not know which students are eligible to apply.  

That’s why Benefits Data Trust is releasing a toolkit in early 2023 to help higher education institutions identify students who are likely eligible for food assistance, Medicaid, and the new Affordable Connectivity Program that provides $30 a month toward internet service. The first in a series of toolkits, this resource will serve as a practical guide to help college administrators find students who are likely eligible for benefits based on data they already hold that they can use to inform their outreach efforts.  

This resource is sorely needed and will become particularly vital when the ongoing COVID-19 Public Health Emergency comes to an end, which may happen early next year. Under temporary pandemic rules, students may qualify for SNAP if they have an $0 Expected Family Contribution or are deemed work study eligible per their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This temporary rule impacts more than 3 million college students – some of whom were ineligible to apply under regular rules, and others who will continue to qualify after the emergency ends. The toolkit will help higher education institutions identify those students who will continue to qualify for SNAP benefits after the health emergency ends, and ensure that these students do not miss out on assistance they are eligible for.  

To develop a successful and diverse workforce of the future, we need to make sure students today have the tools and resources to thrive. Together, we can fuel this coordinated effort and modernize our public benefits system to make our country even stronger.