- Nearly three dozen higher education groups wrote to Congress last week urging the passage of new bicameral legislation that aims to reduce food insecurity on campus — an issue that affects one-third of students, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
- The College Student Hunger Act of 2019, proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., lays out measures to ensure more low-income students can access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
- The legislation aims to remove barriers preventing students from accessing the federal program at a time when more colleges are courting nontraditional students. A similar bill was put forward in 2017.
Lawmakers and policy experts are confident SNAP is a more viable long-term solution for improving food access on campus than ad-hoc efforts such as food banks and emergency financial aid.
"Those are stop-gap solutions and not completely reliable," said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, which was one of the letter's signatories, in an interview with Education Dive. "Once a student is eligible, SNAP is a stable, reliable source."
But getting students to sign up has been a challenge.
The legislation follows a GAO report published in January that said many colleges and students don't know how to use SNAP. Slightly more than half of the 3.3 million students who were potentially eligible for SNAP in 2016 didn't partake of the program's benefits largely for that reason, the report noted.
Eligibility is also an issue for part-time students.
The legislation proposes to expand SNAP eligibility to students who qualify for Pell Grants and halve the number of hours a student must work per week to qualify for SNAP benefits to 10 hours. It also calls for a pilot program to explore tailoring SNAP to college students' needs.
Those points are reflected in earlier calls to improve food access on campus. Among them are tying SNAP to financial aid requirements, streamlining the application process and allowing college enrollment to be used in place of the program's work criteria.
Improving access to food is "a completion strategy" at a time when most people attending a postsecondary institution "are students as a second or third part of their identity," Carrie Welton, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told Education Dive.
As the GAO report notes, only 29% of college students matriculated straight from high school and are financially dependent on their parents. Meanwhile, as much as 71% of the postsecondary student body is now "nontraditional," meaning they are some combination of financially independent, caregivers, full-time workers, part-time students, without a traditional high school diploma or delayed in their enrollment to college.
"Nontraditional students who we thought about as a smaller demographic are now a majority of the college student body," Welton said. "States have to treat students as whole people, not just as students."