SNAP Expanded to Temporarily Benefit Ohio College Students

February 3, 2021 | Ohio

SNAP Expanded to Temporarily Benefit Ohio College Students

February 3, 2021

By Alex F. Coccia, D.Phil., Policy Consultant

College students have faced severe disruption and instability because of the pandemic. Recent temporary changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can help them access nutritional assistance and provide millions of dollars to local Ohio economies.

SNAP is one of the largest safety-net programs, serving nearly 1.4 million Ohioans in 2019. It is also incredibly effective at responding to changes in the economy, improving health outcomes, reducing poverty and food insecurity for children, boosting the income of families who work low-paying jobs or are searching for work, supporting individuals with caregiving responsibilities or face barriers to work, investing in local economies, and reaching those eligible.

Despite the successes of the program, college students with low-incomes have long been excluded from SNAP, even with high rates experiencing food insecurity. Before the pandemic, about 1 in 3 college students experienced food insecurity, which was more prevalent among students of color and first-generations students. Ohio students saw an increase in food insecurity prior to the pandemic, with food pantries becoming regular fixtures on campuses. An Ohio University survey of its first-generation students in 2018 found that 48 percent had been food insecure or hungry at some point in their first year. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend as students have relocated, experienced high rates of unemployment and wage loss especially in the service industry, lost out on funds they paid for Spring 2020 costs, 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.

College students are only eligible for SNAP if they meet the income and asset limits, household qualifications, immigration status requirements, and are enrolled less than half-time. Students in Ohio enrolled more than half-time must meet one of the exemption criteria, including having a dependent under the age of six, receiving Ohio Works First (OWF) benefits, participating in an on-the-job training program, participating in state or federally financed work study, being outside the ages of 18-49, or being unable to work for health reasons. Given the strict eligibility requirements, even students who receive free or reduced-price lunch in secondary school might not be SNAP eligible despite the same need.

However, recent legislation has made important, albeit temporary changes. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, passed in December 2020 which provided a second round of COVID-19 relief, 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. In 2016, nearly 40 percent of students across the country received a $0 EFC. The temporary changes are in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted.

These changes acknowledge both the immediate needs of college students who are otherwise unable to work on campus and have increased hardship because of the pandemic, and the fact that the “traditional” college student model under which SNAP eligibility was first conceived is outdated.  Rather than most students moving directly from high school to college, being financially-reliant on their parents, and having no dependents or income themselves, today’s student population is nearly three-fourths “nontraditional.”

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Ohio Department of Higher Education have roles to play in making sure that Ohio’s institutions of higher education (IHEs) ensure that financial aid offices help students easily access their EFC information and work-study eligibility. They can also support implementation by providing guidance on how students can apply for SNAP benefits and conduct outreach to students to make them aware of these eligibility changes. Ohio has shown to be a leader nationally in securing nutrition benefits for school age children and has an opportunity to continue this leadership for our college aged youth struggling with food insecurity.

Additionally, 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. This is especially important given that 57 percent of students potentially eligible for SNAP in 2016 did not participate in the program. In the meantime, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services could broaden the designation of employment and training programs at two-year and community colleges. Food and Nutrition Service states that state SNAP agencies have the authority to decide which college programs can be designated under this exemption criterion.

These immediate and long-term changes can help update SNAP to meet the nutrition needs of today’s college student population.