Across the United States, the vast majority of people who are eligible for SNAP enroll in the program. In 2016, 85% of eligible Americans participated in SNAP . College students, however, are an exception to this pattern. SNAP participation rates among eligible college students appear to be much lower than average participation in the general population, despite high levels of food insecurity on college campuses. While no national statistics on SNAP participation among college students exist, a recent report from the GAO indicates that at least 2 million eligible college students are not enrolled in the program . Why don’t college students enroll in SNAP? What makes it difficult for them to do so? And what does SNAP enrollment look like among students at CUNY?
Our recently completed study, Understanding the Barriers to SNAP among College Students, found that most students who are enrolled in SNAP at CUNY felt it had a positive impact on them as students. 58% of students who are enrolled in the program reported that receiving SNAP benefits had a positive impact on them as a student. 41% reported no impact and only 1% reported that SNAP had a negative impact on them as students, because they are not able to use SNAP on their campus. One student reported that SNAP “allows me to focus on school and not worry so much about how I will eat.” Another reported that they “can use part of the money I’m saving to get books and pay for school.” Another put it succinctly, “Less stress = better grades”.
Though the program has a positive impact on CUNY students, very few who are eligible are actually enrolled in the program. Based on just the income and legal status requirements, 41% of all surveyed students would be eligible for SNAP but slightly less than half of these students – 20% – are enrolled. In part, this is because of the incredibly complex rules that determine SNAP eligibility for full time college students. In the early 1980’s, the USDA introduced new rules that barred full time college students from SNAP unless they were working at least 20 hours a week, caring for a young child, were disabled, had a work study position, or were receiving cash assistance (AFDC at the time, TANF today). In our study, we found only 58% of students who were otherwise eligible for SNAP met one of these exemptions. In interviews, CUNY students who had applied for SNAP but were turned down because they did not meet the student eligibility requirements expressed feeling like they were being punished for being full time students. These students also experienced high levels of food insecurity and hunger.
But even among students who were income eligible and met one of the exemptions, only 35% were enrolled in SNAP. The complex rules for college students increase the administrative burden of applying for the program for this population. Students have to make sense of these complicated rules and how they apply to their personal circumstances. Complex, stressful application procedures for public programs add to stigma and the likelihood that people will give up on the process and forego benefits for which they are eligible. Significant numbers of CUNY students who do not receive SNAP have been dissuaded by rules that make it harder for them to qualify. 31.5% of CUNY students who do not receive SNAP believe they are not eligible or were turned down when they applied because they are a student. 11.2% of students who do not receive SNAP believe that they do not qualify because they do not work enough hours. Single Stop employees who help students enroll in benefits on CUNY campuses confirmed that the SNAP work requirements for full time college students are one of the primary reasons students are denied much needed food assistance from SNAP.
The reasoning behind SNAP restrictions for college students is a belief that full time college students are largely young, middle class, living on college campuses, and receiving financial assistance from their families. The reality at CUNY and across the country is that students are balancing family commitments with work and school as they strive to get ahead. 62% of students in our study reported living with parents or guardians, but only 36% listed their parents or guardians’ income as their main source of financial support. 39% of all students reported their own work as their main source of income. 9% listed student loans or financial aid and 6.6% listed public assistance as their main source of financial support. In follow up interviews, some students reported contributing part or all of their earnings to their family household to pay for expenses like rent and food.
Studies at CUNY have shown that large numbers of our students struggle with food insecurity and that Black, Latinx, low income, and community college students are more likely to report experiencing hunger than their peers. The rules that bar full time college students from SNAP exacerbate the challenges our students face in getting enough to eat. As our research shows, these rules are an unnecessary barrier and burden on students who represent the future of New York City. While CUNY campaigns to reduce stigma, increase awareness, and assist CUNY students applying for SNAP are important, CUNY also needs to be a leader in the push to end SNAP restrictions for college students.
By Maggie Dickinson, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Guttman Community College
 USDA. Trends in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Rates: Fiscal Year 2010 to Fiscal Year 2016. In: Service FaN, ed. Washington, DC: FNS, 2018.
 GAO. Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Accountability Office, 2019.