How to End the Hunger and Homelessness Crisis Among College Students
November 13-21 is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which was designed to shine a light on many Americans’ struggle to have enough to eat and a roof overhead. As we approach the holidays and consider these issues and ways to combat them, it’s important to note that too many of those facing hunger and homelessness are college students.
Sadly, food and shelter insecurity among college students is nothing new. Many students come to college already experiencing food and housing insecurity, while others are on the brink of it. This is especially true for the most vulnerable students, including justice-impacted and undocumented college students. The rising costs of college attendance have forced many of them to choose between paying for tuition or paying for rent and food.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated matters, as a growing number of college students and their families are struggling to make ends meet amid sickness, job loss, or other financial challenges. Nearly one-third of college students have missed a meal at least once a week since the beginning of the pandemic. And hunger and housing instability can have a direct impact on student performance and success in the college classroom. Students who lack enough to eat or stable housing are less likely to graduate from college and pursue a graduate degree — a particularly salient concern for first-generation college students, who often set aside their own needs to help their families and are among those hit hardest by food and housing insecurity.
Fortunately, recent COVID-19 relief bills included resources to help college students secure food and shelter. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through September 2021, temporarily raising the maximum benefit for eligible SNAP households. It also extended SNAP eligibility to some college students through January 1, 2022 (see more details here), and provided emergency SNAP allotments, which will likely continue through the end of 2021. In addition, emergency grants — which can be used to cover food, housing, course materials, health-care or child-care costs — were provided directly to college students via the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) I, II, and III, which was created under COVID-19 emergency relief legislation.
Unfortunately, those federal measures are fleeting and they’re far from enough.
Robust, permanent policy solutions are desperately needed to address long-standing food and housing insecurities. While there’s no single solution to these problems, policymakers and higher education stakeholders should consider taking these three steps to reduce basic needs insecurity for students now and after the pandemic:
Double the Pell Grant
Federal policymakers should double the Pell Grant to make college more affordable for students from low-income backgrounds and help reduce the financial burden of paying for college.
Since 1980, college tuition and fees have risen 1,200%, while state funding for public colleges and universities has decreased drastically from pre-2008 recession levels. Moreover, state funding per student has declined in many places, while tuition (and the amount students are expected to pay) has increased. Pell Grants have enabled more than 7 million low- to moderate-income students who might not otherwise go to college to pursue a postsecondary degree. But the maximum Pell Grant is only $6,500, while the average cost of college attendance is about $25,000 and can top $45,000. Raising the Pell Grant to $13,000 would help more students go to college, reduce the financial burden on students from low- and middle-income backgrounds and their families, and allow them to cover other expenses like food and housing.
Enact Free College
Federal policymakers should enact a large-scale equity-driven, federal-state partnership for debt-free college that includes all students and goes beyond tuition to eliminate barriers that contribute to hunger and homelessness among college students.
Free college programs have been around for some time and have proliferated in recent years on account of rising college costs. As a recent Ed Trust report noted, however, many of them exclude vulnerable student groups, such as returning, part-time, adult, justice-impacted, and undocumented students, and often fail to advance equity. In “A Promise Worth Keeping,” Ed Trust researchers examined 23 existing statewide free college programs and found that most of them discourage certain student groups from applying, do not cover costs beyond tuition, and/or convert program grants into loans. The report outlined an updated equity-driven framework for free college programs that was designed with those student groups in mind. But as of last year, only a single program, the Washington College Grant, met all the equity criteria.
Suffice it to say the report shows that few existing free college programs are doing enough to support students and address their basic needs. America’s College Promise might have helped change that, but it has been removed from the reconciliation bill. Federal policymakers, however, still have an opportunity to insert equitable measures that would support students facing hunger and homelessness.
Permanently Extend Student SNAP Eligibility and Expand SNAP to Cover Justice-Impacted and Undocumented Students
Federal policymakers should make recent eligibility changes — which let students who qualify for state or federally financed work-study or have an expected family contribution (EFC) of zero to access SNAP benefits — permanent. Before the temporary expansion of SNAP student eligibility requirements under the latest pandemic relief bill, college students who were enrolled at least half time were typically not eligible for SNAP unless they met certain exemptions.
Moreover, except in states that opted out of the federal lifetime ban on federal food assistance for justice-impacted individuals, many formerly incarcerated students are also ineligible for SNAP. Undocumented individuals — including Deferred Action for Child Arrival (DACA) recipients — are prohibited from receiving SNAP benefits on account of their legal status. Given the high prevalence of food insecurity among these populations, the imposition of such barriers seems harsh and unjust, not to mention counterproductive. Federal policymakers would be wise to expand SNAP benefits to include justice-impacted and undocumented college students who are pursuing a higher education.
Implementing these policy asks is not only the right thing to do, but would help millions of struggling college students who bear the enormous weight and worry of securing enough to eat and a safe place to sleep, while also supporting their postsecondary success amid the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.