SNAP for College Students
College is a time to worry about the next physics exam, or how you’re going to slog through “Moby-Dick,” not how you’re going to afford your next meal.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to help pay for food may not be on your radar in college, even if you’re struggling. But many college students do qualify for SNAP, once known as Food Stamps.
A third or more students at colleges and universities have experienced food insecurity during their school years, a number that rises for Black, Latino and Native American students. Food insecurity affects 34 million Americans, more than 10% of the population, but college students feel it more acutely. Going hungry in college can affect grades, physical and mental health, increases the possibility of depression and stress, and causes students to drop out.
Students who struggle to pay for meals may not realize they are eligible for SNAP, formerly as Food Stamps, and administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services (FNS).
Nearly 53 million Americans use nutrition programs, like SNAP, to help feed themselves and their families. Food Stamps for college students have different requirements than those for households and people not attending college. If you are struggling to keep food in the fridge, you may meet these requirements.
Can College Students Get Food Stamps?
College students between the ages of 18 and 49 can get SNAP benefits designed specifically for people who are in school, if they meet requirements.
SNAP benefits are determined by family income. SNAP for college students is available to those who meet at least one exemption. Their school, too, must meet eligibility requirements.
Students must apply for student SNAP through the state of their official residence. For example, if you live in Vermont, but attend college in Massachusetts, even though you are in Massachusetts seven or eight months of the year for school, you would apply in Vermont.
You can get your state’s eligibility information and an online application from the FNS State Directory or call Project Bread, at 1-800-645-8333. Each state has its own guidelines, though they can’t be more restrictive than the federal ones.
Who Is Considered a ‘Student’?
A student, for SNAP purposes, is someone enrolled at least half-time in an institution of higher education. The number of hours considered as half-time enrollment is determined by the school. Those enrolled for less may be eligible for general non-college student SNAP benefits.
What Is an ‘Institution of Higher Education’?
Students attend an institution of higher education, for SNAP purposes, if they are enrolled in a regular college or university degree curriculum program, or enrolled at a business, technical, trade, or vocational school program that requires a high school diploma or equivalent (HiSET or GED). So, if you’re enrolled in a certificate program that doesn’t require a high school degree, even if you have one, the program doesn’t qualify.
Student Exemptions for SNAP
The rules of SNAP were created with the belief that college students are still under their parents’ wing and part of their household budget. That’s why the qualification standards for college student SNAP benefits are called “exemptions.” They exempt a student from the restriction that they can’t apply.
Students must meet at least one of the following exemptions to qualify for SNAP for college students:
- Are younger than 18 or older than 49
- Have a physical or mental disability
- Work at least 20 hours a week in paid employment
- Participate in a state or federally financed work study program
- Participate in an on-the-job training program
- Care for a child under the age of 6
- Care for a child age 6 to 11, lack childcare that would allow you to attend school, and work 20 hours a week or participate in work study
- Are a single parent enrolled full-time in college and taking care of a child under age 12
- Receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) assistance
- Are enrolled in a TANF Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program
- Are assigned to, placed in, or self-placed in a college or other institution of higher education through:
- A SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) program
- Certain other E&T programs for low-income households, which are operated by a state or local government and have an equivalent component to SNAP E&T
- A program under Title I of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) (PL 113-128)
- A Trade Adjustment Assistance Program under Section 236 of the Trade Act of 1974.
Your local SNAP office can explain the exemptions and review your circumstances if you’re not sure whether you qualify.
Temporary COVID-19 SNAP Extension for College Students
SNAP eligibility for college students was expanded with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. This allowed eligibility for students:
- Who participate in a state or federally financed work study program during the regular school year, as determined by the institution of higher education; or,
- The student has an expected family contribution (EFC) of 0 in the current academic year.
The temporary extension expires in June 2023, with only students who have applied before that date eligible to continue to get temporary benefits. In some states, the cutoff was earlier.
What Is SNAP?
SNAP is a program that provides support to Americans who can’t afford to buy food. The acronym stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. “Supplemental” means that it’s meant to supplement a food budget, not cover all food needs. The word “nutritional” is deliberate – SNAP benefits are built around the idea that good nutrition is necessary to living a healthy life. Allowed foods on the program comply with USDA nutrition guidelines.
The program is overseen by the USDA, and administered by states, many of which have their own rules and guidelines beyond the federal ones.
The program first began as a pilot in 1961, and was called the Food Stamp Program, because stamps were issued to be redeemed for food. The name was changed in 2008 to remove the stigma of “being on Food Stamps,” as well as to stress the nutrition focus. Many states offer nutrition education to go along with the monthly benefit.
There have been many changes to the program in the more than 60 years since Food Stamps launched.
Families who get SNAP benefits get an amount determined by family size, assets, and income.
SNAP for college students works a little differently, since college students are in the unique situation of having an obligation (attending college) that takes much of their time, but doesn’t provide an income.
College student SNAP differs from the regular program in that students are not restricted to three months every 36 months. The benefits term is longer for students, determine by their state.
A bill was introduced in the U.S. House in January 2023, the Opportunity to Address College Hunger Act, would require institutions of higher education that get federal grants supporting work-study programs to notify students who get work-study assistance that they may be eligible for SNAP benefits.
The bill comes after the College Student Hunger Act of 2021, which would expanded eligibility in a way that was similar to the temporary COVID-19 standards, died in January 2023. It was similar to other bills that have been introduced over the past several years to modernize requirements for students that don’t take into account 21st century college costs, family makeup and financial considerations.
People who use SNAP get electronic benefits transfer card to pay for their food. The EBT card is a debit card on which benefits are loaded each month, with the amount based on income and expenses. A college EBT card can be used at most stores that sell groceries, as well as farmer’s markets and other places that sell healthy food. It can be used at some campus stores if they’re approved to accept SNAP benefits.
A SNAP EBT card can only be used for very specific food and beverages. SNAP benefits pay for:
- Fruit, vegetables
- Meat, poultry, fish
- Dairy products
- Bread, cereal
- Snack food
- Non-alcoholic beverages
- Food-producing seeds and plants
Hot prepared food, like pizza or prepared meals in a grocery store, as well as restaurant meals, are not SNAP EBT eligible.
Frequently Asked Questions About Student Food Assistance
Community College Students
Community college students can get SNAP benefits, but eligibility requirements vary by state.
You may be eligible if you are in a Perkins V Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, but check with your school’s student resource office since rules vary by state.
Your school resource office can also help if you’re not eligible, so be sure to check. You may be eligible for regular SNAP benefits or other programs to help you buy food or pay the bills.
Students Who Live with a Parent or Spouse
Students who are younger than 22 and live with their parents while they attend school (as opposed to living on campus or somewhere besides home while school is in session) can’t apply for SNAP separately from their parents. The entire family must apply for benefits, and everyone’s income is considered. This means, too, that the student eligibility standards aren’t applicable.
If you live with a spouse or a roommate and buy and prepare food together for at least half of your meals, you are considered a household under SNAP. If that’s the case, you must apply together and all forms of income, including earned or unearned, for everyone in the household over the age of 17 count. If you don’t qualify for college student SNAP benefits, you may want to look into whether you qualify for regular SNAP benefits.
Students with Meal Plans
Students with a meal plan that covers half or more of their meals aren’t eligible for SNAP benefits, even if they meet all the other requirements. (Some states have more generous plans. For instance, in Massachusetts, the meal plan must provide two-thirds of your meals). A student EBT card also can’t be used for college cafeteria meals, or other hot prepared food.
Students on Break
If you are eligible for SNAP college student benefits, you still are eligible during summer break and school vacations, as long as you remain enrolled. Once you graduate, or if you’re suspended, expelled, or drop out, your eligibility ends.
SNAP and Financial Aid
College students can apply for SNAP without it having any effect on their financial aid. And, the other side of the coin, financial aid doesn’t count as income that will affect college benefits. This includes Pell grants, federal college loans, work-study income and non-federal student aid used for anything other than living expenses. Financial aid that includes deferred payment loans and veterans’ educational benefits, are not counted as long as it is used for educational expenses, including tuition, books, and required fees.
The Impact of Hunger on College Students
College students who are food insecure are more likely to have lower grades and a worse overall academic performance than their counterparts, numerous studies show. Lack of food and poor nutrition also leads to physical and mental health problems. Students who are food insecure are more prone to depression, feel stress more greatly and made bad decisions, experts say. They are also more likely to drop out of school before getting a degree, which has an impact on their lifetime earning potential.
A Temple University study in 2021 found that 39% of students at Philadelphia-area four-year colleges and universities and 29% of students at area two-year colleges met the definition of food insecurity. The numbers are higher for non-white students. Some 47% of Black students and 42% of Latino students at four-four year colleges met the definition. At two-year colleges, 55% of American Indian students, 54% of Black and 47% of Latino students did. White students at four-year colleges came in at 30%, and 37% at two-year colleges.
An earlier study found that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 30% of students at four-year colleges said they experienced food insecurity at some point during their college years.
Some 7.3 million students —39% of undergraduate students in the country – are in households with incomes under 130% of the federal poverty level and 29% percent of college undergraduates in are in low-income households that have another risk factor for food insecurity, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
While about 1.5 million college students use SNAP benefits, the number only represents 4 out of 10 who are eligible, according to the GAO.
One reason is the eligibility requirements. The temporary COVID-19 expansion added 6 million eligible students. But, of those who do qualify, many students aren’t aware they can apply for the benefits or know how to access them.
“I accessed food assistance when I was in college; without it, I would not have had enough to eat,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, said when she introduced the Opportunity to Address College Hunger Act in January 2023. The bill would require colleges and universities to better inform students about SNAP benefits.
“No college student should feel stigmatized for accessing food assistance when they need help. Many students have told me about the challenges they face in putting food on the table for themselves and their families while in school,” Bonamici said.
Students who aren’t eligible for college student SNAP benefits, for instance, those who attend less than half time, may find they qualify for the non-college SNAP benefits.
College is stressful enough without worrying about how to pay day-to-day bills or where your next meal will come from. You may find yourself running up credit card debt to pay your bills or to buy groceries. On top of it, you’re likely taking out student loans you’re not sure how you’ll ever pay back as you watch college costs and expenses just keep rising.
A good place to get help is InCharge Debt Solutions, a nonprofit credit counseling agency. Credit counseling is free, and the counselor can help you find resources to pay bills, even if you don’t qualify for college student SNAP benefits, and will also give you suggestions on how to budget, recommend financial education tools, and more.
Credit counselors at nonprofit agencies like InCharge are required by law to give you advice that’s in your best interest.
You are already doing the hard work of getting an education that will give you a more solid future. Talking to a credit counselor and finding student debt relief is a small step you can take that will lead to less stress and firmer financial footing.
About The Author
Maureen Milliken writes about personal finance and debt relief topics for InCharge Debt Solutions. She started as the “Business Beat” columnist for the now-defunct Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette and has been writing about finance, real estate and business for more than 30 years. She also is is the author of three mystery novels and two nonfiction books.
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