Blog Post | May 7, 2024

New report provides roadmap for states to improve connections between postsecondary education and public benefit programs

Author: Leslie Rios and Carrie Welton

The State of State Choices Guide provides roadmap for states to accelerate economic mobility and educational attainment

Across federal public benefits programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), outdated “work first” approaches that restrict or discourage education beyond high school are baked into program eligibility rules. States invest millions or even billions of dollars on job training activities that research has shown can marginally improve employment but do not substantively improve earnings. Recent research has found that many commonly used job training activities leave participants earning the same or even less than people with only a high school diploma and don’t provide a pathway out of poverty. 

Public benefit programs that restrict access to postsecondary education contradict research that shows that each level of postsecondary education achieved is correlated with improved social, economic, and health outcomes including higher earnings, lower unemployment and poverty rates, and improved educational outcomes for children. Despite national calls to better connect public benefits and resources to enrolled students, students with some college no degree, and high school completers with no credentials, there remains a significant gap in the understanding of and available evidence about program eligibility for postsecondary students and postsecondary eligibility among program participants. 

A new report released by The Hope Center at Temple University, “The State of State Choices: A national landscape analysis of postsecondary eligibility restrictions and opportunities in SNAP, TANF, and CCDF” (or “The State of State Choices Guide”), fills this gap, providing policymakers and other decision-makers with updated resources on state-level education-related policy choices within SNAP, TANF, and CCDF. In a comprehensive scan of state administrative manuals and plans across 50 states, the report documents how states maximize or restrict the pursuit of education beyond high school through their policy choices.  

This resource will be a critical tool to align federal programs to better support postsecondary access and completion. Education thought leaders, state advocates, and state administrators can utilize this research to identify what their states can do to better bridge the gap between basic needs insecurity and college access and success. Importantly, although federal reform is urgent, the policy choices highlighted provide states with several mechanisms to update these policies.  

Public benefit programs actively undermine education beyond high school  

Improving postsecondary completion among people with no credential or degree has increasingly become a priority for states working to improve economic well-being and workforce development outcomes. Research clearly demonstrates that college credentials lead to improved economic mobility, and employer demand for postsecondary credentials is only expected to increase. However, national data illustrate that six-year college completion rates have remained at a stagnant 62 percent, with lower rates among Black students, Latinx students, and adults over 24.  

These numbers become less surprising when viewed in the context of how difficult it is for students to cover the full costs of college, including basic needs like housing, transportation, and food. The Hope Center Student Basic Needs Survey found that three in five college students reported experiencing basic needs insecurity in 2020, with the highest rates reported by Indigenous, Black, and American Indian or Alaskan Native students. Research has also shown that investments in wraparound student supports increase college completion rates among students of color and students with low incomes.  

There are approximately 65 million people over age 25 in the US who completed a high school degree but have never attempted college as of 2022, and 33 million more have some college but no degree. Over almost a decade, the number of people with only a high school degree has decreased by only about two percentage points 

Meanwhile, despite having considerable autonomy in how they administer critical public benefit programs, many states adopt and enforce policies, such as time limits on education that prioritize employment and training activities that do not lead to improved wages or well-being for program participants. Program participants seeking to pursue higher education while receiving benefits are not always deemed worthy candidates without meeting additional activity requirements. For instance, students enrolled at least half-time in higher education are required to meet a student exemption to be eligible for SNAP, while students who are enrolled less than half-time must participate in work requirements that can include volunteering but not education. On the other hand, TANF and CCDF are programs with significant state opportunities in counting education towards eligibility, yet many states uphold various limitations that keep families trapped in a cycle of low-wage jobs and poverty. 

Decades of prioritizing the immediate and short-term benefits of low-wage work over the long-term returns to education have undermined the promise of benefit programs by foreclosing opportunities for participants to make decisions for themselves and pursue more secure pathways to mobility.  

Despite progress and a growing body of evidence and solutions, more work remains  

While advocates in states and on college campuses have been highlighting and committed to addressing students’ costs beyond tuition and fees for decades, it has only been in the last 10-12 years that state and national organizations have identified and elevated the need to bridge the disconnect between benefit access and postsecondary education. The Center for Law & Social Policy (CLASP) pioneered the Benefits Access for College Completion project that kicked off in 2011, a seminal work on the intersections between higher education and public benefits. The 2016 report, Child Care for Parents in College: A State-by-State Assessment, published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), was also integral to increased consciousness and moving the conversation forward.  

Today’s Hope Center report builds on that body of work and could not be published at a more urgent time. Far too many state-managed federal public benefits programs continue to restrict or make it nearly impossible to combine work and education. This report, resulting from a partnership between The Hope Center at Temple University and the Congressional Hunger Center’s Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship fills a gaping hole in states’, advocates’, and students’ understanding of how postsecondary education and public benefits do and could interact. The report demystifies these policies by clearly documenting exactly how states and the federal government can improve the connections between education beyond high school and public benefits. 

Several states are paving the way in maximizing these policy opportunities. The report includes several examples for states to draw on from California, Massachusetts, and Oregon that highlight the meaningful steps states can take to maximize flexibility through clarifications and guidance that promotes higher education, as well as by removing time limits on education, limitations on the degrees that can be pursued, and other requirements that undermine education. For instance, Massachusetts has determined that two-year programs that increase the employability of students are deemed eligible under the employment and training student exemptions in SNAP. 

Ensuring state advocates, state higher education leaders, and state agencies support policies that align public benefit programs to facilitate postsecondary credential access and completion is critical now more than ever. We hope this research spurs advocates and decision-makers to move the needle in supporting people on their pathways to long-term financial stability.