SNAP participation rates among eligible college students appear to be much lower than average participation in the general population. The study found that only 38 percent of students at the City University of New York (CUNY) who are eligible for SNAP were enrolled in the program in 2020, either as an individual or a member of a household. Eighty-four percent of eligible U.S. residents participated in SNAP in 2017. While no national statistics on SNAP participation among college students exist, a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that at least 2 million eligible college students are not enrolled in the program. At the same time, evidence suggests that college students experience food insecurity at much higher rates than the national average. Why do so few college students enroll in SNAP despite high rates of food insecurity?
This study explores the paradox of high rates of food hardship among college students, alongside low rates of participation in SNAP, the nation’s largest and most effective food assistance program. This mixed methods study drew on survey data and interviews with students at the City University of New York (CUNY) in order to explore the barriers to SNAP enrollment. Researchers administered a survey that measured food insecurity, SNAP eligibility, and SNAP enrollment to a representative sample of students (N=504) at CUNY. Follow up phone interviews with 22 students who participated in the study further explored the particular barriers college students face when they attempt to enroll in SNAP and the reasons why eligible students choose not to apply.
Estimating eligibility and enrollment in SNAP among college students is complicated because of the myriad of rules and restrictions that apply to this population. In order to qualify for SNAP, all applicants must meet the income requirements. That is, their income must be below a certain threshold for their household size. Applicants must also be either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident who has had that legal status for at least 5 years. However, full time college students are subjected to additional eligibility requirements which make estimating the percentage of students who are eligible far more complex. In the early 1980’s, the USDA introduced new rules that barred full-time college students from receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps) unless they were working at least 20 hours a week, caring for a young child, were disabled, had a Fderal work study position, or were receiving cash assistance (AFDC at the time, TANF today).
The study found that complicated SNAP eligibility rules deter enrollment for low income college students. These rules are a major barrier due to both direct exclusion from SNAP and several indirect effects. Approximately 7,000 college students in New York City have their SNAP benefits rejected annually due to college student restrictions. Thirty-two percent of CUNY students who would otherwise qualify for SNAP do not qualify due to student restrictions. Further, these rules increase confusion over eligibility among college students and increase stigma associated with the program. In interviews, students described being cut off from SNAP benefits because they are full-time students and a reluctance to apply because of confusion over the eligibility requirements.
SNAP college student policies are out of step with current college student demographics and harm low income, food insecure students. Seventy-one percent of college students nationally have at least one characteristic of non-traditional students. At CUNY 80 percent of undergraduates are students of color, 61 percent are first generation college students, 53 percent work more than 20 hours a week, and 42 percent come from households with annual incomes below $20,000. Sixty-two percent of respondents in the study reported living with a parent or guardian, but only 36 percent of students listed their parents’ income as their main source of financial support. These students do not match the image of a middle-class college student with no dependents who can rely on help from their families to support them while they are in school that motivated policy makers to add college student eligibility requirements to food stamps in the 1980’s. In interviews, students who are not eligible for SNAP because they do not meet an exemption and those who choose not apply because of confusion over SNAP policies reported severe food hardships.
The study also revealed a widespread practice of skipping meals, that contributes to high rates of food insecurity among college students. Fifty-six percent of respondents reported skipping meals when they are on campus. Students who skip meals when they are on campus are more likely to be food insecure than their peers (p=0.035). Interviews with students reveal that the demands of pursuing a college education, including increased time pressures, financial strain, extended commuting times, and challenges balancing paid employment, caring responsibilities, and the need to study, all contribute to the widespread practice of students skipping meals, particularly among non-traditional students who make up the majority of students at CUNY and nationally.
The cumulative time costs associated with pursuing a college education are a significant factor contributing to food insecurity for low income college students. The widespread practice of skipping meals is compounded by SNAP policies that prohibit the purchase of prepared foods, the inability of students to use SNAP to purchase food on campus, and the time constraints that inhibit students’ abilities to cook and prepare food at home.
Removing SNAP eligibility requirements for full-time college students at the Federal level would reducing stigma and expand access to SNAP for low income college students. It would also improve campus-based efforts to increase SNAP enrollment. States can also designate community college enrollment as meeting employment and training exemptions to expand access to SNAP among low-income college students. Allowing students to use SNAP on campus or providing free or low-cost meals on campus would further reduce the likelihood that students will skip meals when they are on campus and would reduce college food insecurity.