Over 50% of eligible students do not participate in SNAP, and the complexity of the rules is a major contributor.
All Californians should have the opportunity to pursue higher education without sacrificing their basic needs. However, food insecurity among college students is an ongoing problem. For example, a 2019 survey of California community college students revealed that over half had trouble paying for their meals.
Over 50% of Eligible College Students Don’t Participate in SNAP
While there are safety net programs in place, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — or CalFresh, as it is known in California — to help people put food on the table, people who are enrolled in college at least half-time face significantly more complex rules to qualify.
A recent government report estimated that over 50% of eligible students did not participate in SNAP. The report pointed to the complexity of student-specific eligibility rules as a likely contributor to low enrollment rates. To qualify, students enrolled at least half-time must meet the regular income eligibility criteria and also meet one of eight additional requirements.1Under SNAP/CalFresh, people are considered students if they are enrolled in an institution of higher education at least half-time, are between the ages of 18 and 49, and are deemed mentally and physically fit. Students who are enrolled less than half-time are not classified as “students” under CalFresh. These students only have to meet the regular income eligibility criteria to receive benefits. Four of these requirements are geared toward parents or caretakers. The other four require that students:
- Be in their final semester.
- Work at least 20 hours a week.
- Participate in work study, or enroll in an employment training program.
If they do not meet these requirements, they cannot receive CalFresh regardless of their income or needs.
CalFresh Requirements Need to Be Simplified for College Students
Given the increasingly high costs of attending college, students with low incomes face a significant disadvantage and a higher likelihood of experiencing food insecurity. In fact, within the California Community Colleges (CCC) system, which serves high percentages of people of color and people with low incomes, over half of all students are enrolled at least half-time. Therefore, these students would need to meet the burdensome requirements to access CalFresh. Nearly three-quarters of these students are under the age of 25, which makes them less likely to meet requirements geared toward parents and families. This suggests that most students in need of food assistance would have to take on jobs on top of their heavy course loads. This could significantly impact their ability to meet their educational goals.
Under federal COVID-19 relief policies, additional exemption criteria were granted to allow more students to receive CalFresh. The expansion allowed students eligible for federal or state work study, regardless of whether they participated, or those with $0 in expected family contributions to qualify for CalFresh if they met the regular income requirements. As a result, student applications for CalFresh more than quadrupled in 2021.2Aaron Kunst, Andrew Cheyne, Becky Silva, and Ruben E. Canedo, CalFresh for College Students: Equitable and Just Access (California Association of Food Banks, March 2022), 4, https://www.cafoodbanks.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/College-CalFresh-WhitePaper-final-March2022.pdf. However, these federal exemptions ended in June 2023. Students who qualified for CalFresh via these exemptions will no longer be eligible at their renewal date.
Policymakers Can Ensure College Students Have Better Access to Food Assistance
College students should have the same opportunity as any other Californian to access CalFresh. Policymakers have a responsibility to support college students in meeting their educational goals to ensure a skilled workforce in California.
Federal policymakers can help reduce student hunger by:
- Reinstating COVID-19 expansions to SNAP.
- Completely removing the additional red tape that students face to put students on equal footing with everyone else.
In the meantime, state policymakers can continue to support students by investing in administrative support and ensuring that the program is accessible to all eligible students.
Support for this report was provided by the Hilton Foundation.