In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress made a historic investment of $76 billion in emergency aid to students and colleges via the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Alongside this aid, Congress also implemented two provisions intended to improve students’ ability to access food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). While a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) shows that emergency aid was a lifeline for students, we know students don’t just experience hardship during a pandemic.
Similarly, the pandemic SNAP student provisions that went into effect in January 2021 may not have had their intended effect. A recent report indicates that students had even higher levels of food insecurity in December 2022 than when previously surveyed in December 2020.
Now, with the pandemic national emergency set to end in May 2023, Congress must consider how to build on strategies that support postsecondary access and improve student retention and completion, especially for those who are most at risk, by:
- Reducing the barriers to postsecondary education in SNAP, and
- Ensuring students have ongoing access to emergency support.
Emergency Aid Supports Student Success
In 2021 alone, nearly 13 million students received emergency aid through the HEERF, with students receiving an average amount of $1,500. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), students used emergency aid to cover the cost of food (61 percent), books (57 percent), housing (50 percent), and transportation (40 percent). Most recipients reported feeling less financial stress, which allowed them to continue their studies. Additionally, 41 percent of students stated that the aid reduced the amount of student loans they needed to borrow.
Policymakers should consider implementing a fund for students to address unexpected financial emergencies that could force them to drop out or delay degree completion. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) previously introduced the Emergency Grant Aid for College Students Act, which would establish a grant program for colleges and universities to provide emergency grants directly to students to help them get through unanticipated emergencies.
Ensuring SNAP Supports Postsecondary Education
When students struggle to pay for basic needs such as food, housing, and healthcare, they experience higher levels of stress and anxiety, which can negatively impact their academic success. While inequities existed before the national health emergency, the pandemic exacerbated food and housing insecurity for many college students. We also know there are significant racial disparities among students who experience basic needs insecurity: 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent of Black, and 65 percent of Latino students experienced food and housing insecurity, compared to 54 percent of White students. SNAP, the nation’s largest food assistance program, provides a modest benefit to ensure that people from low-income backgrounds, or those experiencing temporary financial hardship, can afford their most basic need for food.
SNAP has gained increased attention as a strategy to reduce student food insecurity and improve college completion. However, despite extensive efforts, it is estimated that less than four out of 10 potentially eligible students participate in the program, due largely to duplicative, overly complex, and confusing student eligibility rules. To receive SNAP, college students must meet all standard eligibility criteria, be enrolled at least half-time, and then meet at least one of the student exemptions. Students attending school less than half-time are still eligible for SNAP but could be subjected to at least one or both of SNAP’s work requirements.
SNAP’s outdated and reductive eligibility rules discourage education for many prospective students by promoting “work first,” despite research that shows work requirements do not reduce poverty or substantively improve employment outcomes. We must recognize that postsecondary credentials are workforce development and align program eligibility rules accordingly. Our new analysis, SNAP Reimagined: Improving Postsecondary Education Access and Completion, outlines how SNAP supports postsecondary access and completion.
Specifically, we recommend that Congress:
- Include programs at institutions of higher education in definitions of “Employment and Training Programs”, and
- Eliminate or significantly reduce restrictions on postsecondary education.
Higher Education Is Workforce Development
States are working to improve their college completion efforts in addressing non-tuition costs, and many strive to connect students to public supports to improve their success. We must ensure federal policies facilitate, rather than hinder, college completion efforts by removing barriers to pathways that lead to success. Ensuring people from low-income backgrounds and those from historically marginalized communities can access and complete a postsecondary credential is vital to the success of our economy, maximizes government spending across education and public benefits, and improves the well-being of families and communities.
The end of the public health emergency creates renewed urgency to reduce the struggles students are facing in meeting their basic needs. Emergency aid can provide immediate financial relief to students who are experiencing unexpected financial challenges, such as a medical emergency, a sudden job loss, or transportation barriers.
If higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer in society, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color, it’s time to support today’s students to ensure they have a fair path to postsecondary education.