Nutrition Support Means Greater Higher Education Access & Equity for Ohioans

February 19, 2021 | Ohio

Nutrition Support Means Greater Higher Education Access & Equity for Ohioans

February 19, 2021

By Alex F. Coccia, Policy Consultant

All Ohioans, their families, and their communities stand to benefit from a thriving higher education system that prioritizes access and affordability of its institutions, including the ability for those attending them to meet their own basic needs as they are pursuing their degrees.

A hallmark of Ohio is our robust and expansive higher education system, comprising 14 public universities, 24 regional branch campuses, 23 community colleges, and over 70 not-for-profit colleges and universities. Accessible higher education is a fundamental force for equity, economic mobility, community investment and development, and enhancing the knowledge and skills of Ohioans to pursue employment of their choosing and gain greater stability for their families. However, a crisis has been looming on the horizon for higher education institutions in Ohio and across the country for well over a decade now, further exposed and intensified by the pandemic.

Between 2008 and 2018, higher education has seen financial challenges across the country.  While Ohio has held off major increases in tuition for public, four-year colleges since the recession (5.2% compared to 106.9% in Louisiana), our state has spent 16.9% less per student in that time period. These tuition increases and financial aid decreases have fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of Black and Latinx families in Ohio, for whom the average price of attendance at a public four-year university is 52 and 41% of median income, respectively, compared to 31% overall. These tuition increases can be cost prohibitive for students with low-incomes seeking college degrees, increase the debt students take on, and reduce future earnings, especially when paired with student loan repayment.

Adding to this, as my colleague wrote in October, college enrollment has dropped across the country since the pandemic began, despite usually rising in periods of economic downturn. While public and private nonprofit four-year institutions’ enrollment declined 2% or less, community college enrollment has declined by 9.4%, “nearly nine times their pre-pandemic loss rate,” equating to more than 600,000 students not enrolling at community colleges this year nationally.

At the same time, college students are experiencing increased food insecurity since the pandemic began. During this time, students have experienced high rates of unemployment and wage loss, were excluded from the first two rounds of federal stimulus checks (if claimed as dependents), and navigated a lack of resources they could usually access on campus. Despite the increased need, college students enrolled more than half-time with low incomes have long been excluded from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by design

Thankfully, new federal expansions in SNAP could help meet the nutritional needs of college students and also bring in millions of dollars in revenue to local communities.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, passed in December 2020 extended SNAP eligibility to college students enrolled at least half-time who are eligible for (not necessarily participating in) a federal or state work study program, or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0. Those with $0 EFC are more likely to be students of color and independent students with dependents. The temporary changes are in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted. With the additional 15% increase in SNAP funds, the maximum benefit for a household of 1 is $234 per month. Because of the pandemic, everyone who qualifies gets the maximum amount.

In each of the past two academic years, over 200,000 Ohio FAFSA filers had an EFC of $0. According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), of the 569,000 students in AY 2021 who filed a FAFSA, nearly 37% had an EFC of $0. When combined with the number of students who qualify for work study programs on campus, this means much needed relief to thousands of young adults statewide. A high take up rate among FAFSA filers with a $0 EFC could mean more than $40 million per month into the pockets of Ohio’s young adults trying to meet their nutritious needs.

In addition to providing desperately needed resources, this would be a huge boost to Ohio’s local economies. SNAP benefits are an effective form of economic stimulus because they are distributed monthly and redeemed by families quickly. They also have a multiplier effect, meaning that for every $1 spent on SNAP, the gross domestic product increases by $1.54, or even as high as $1.80 during a recession.

Some colleges and universities are already making huge strides in meeting the nutritional needs of students. For example, Columbus State Community College is working with Mid-Ohio Food Collective’s SNAP outreach team to provide informational sessions and hands-on assistance to students interested in applying for benefits in the coming weeks. Columbus State’s Mid-Ohio Market is helping students address their rising food insecurity. The Lorain County Community College #HungerFreeLCCC campaign has led to collaborations between foodbanks and the county public health office to expand services available to students on campus.

While Ohio is acting quickly to inform students of these changes, it is critical that special attention is given to make sure we: (1) proactively make the information available, (2) ensure the information presented is clear for students to easily access SNAP benefit applications, (3) coordinate with trusted voices on campus and other campus organizations, and (4) ensure food security after the pandemic.

  • Food and Nutrition Service released guidance for states to implement these eligibility exemption changes in early February. Consistent with this guidance, ODHE and JFS are working collaboratively and proactively with IHEs to prepare communications to all students with an EFC of $0, those who are eligible for work study, those receiving the maximum Pell Grant award, or receive an Ohio College Opportunity Grant
  • Consistent and clear information is key: ODHE and ODJFS will work with IHEs and county JFS offices to ensure financial aid staff are trained on these new changes.
  • Colleges and universities throughout Ohio have experienced much success in working with groups like student groups, local food pantries, and on-campus groceries and markets to distribute information about SNAP eligibility and similar programs. Building on these experiences, colleges and universities across the state can use this opportunity to help students get enrolled who are newly eligible, and students who have been eligible but were not otherwise enrolled..
  • In order to ensure access to benefits and food security after the pandemic, Ohio can work with its federal partners to make these eligibility exemptions permanent, or to eliminate the work requirement all together. Given the decrease in enrollment in Ohio’s community colleges, students facing financial pressures because of the pandemic must be supported in returning as soon as possible. Framing programs like SNAP as retention programs can be effective because helping students meet basic needs will benefit higher education institutions and our communities through higher matriculation, retention, and graduation rates, as well as future student earnings.