Research published by the Urban Institute earlier this month found food insecurity is a concern for a “substantial share of postsecondary students,” despite the perception that people who pursue higher education often come from higher economic backgrounds.
Overall the study, which is based on self-assessed responses to a national survey of 40,000 to 50,000 households with students, found the rates of students who were food insecure mirrored that of the national level, with 11.2% of students in four-year colleges in 2015 reporting food insecurity, 13.5% of students in vocational education programs reporting the same and 13.3% of those in two-year colleges being food insecure.
While these figures were relatively close in 2015, the rate of food security among households with two-year college students was substantially higher immediately following the recession at 21.2% from 2008-14 – a difference that underscores this group’s vulnerability to macro-economic influencers in the country.
A deeper dive into the data show that food insecurity varies among postsecondary students by age, race and employment status.
“White and black students enrolled in two-year schools are significantly more likely to be food insecure than the average adult of the same race, while white and black students enrolled in four-year schools are significantly less likely to be food insecure,” according to the report.
Similarly, students who are older than 30 tend to be more food insecure than their younger counterparts and those working full-time while attending school also struggle more to consistently supply sufficient food, the study notes.
Modifying SNAP benefits to ease insecurity
Based on these findings, the researchers suggest public policy makers rethink how the government provides help to students through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to better target those most at risk.
In particular, they recommend, “the eligibility rules by employment status may deserve a renewed policy focus.”
The study explains, “at present, an enrolled postsecondary student must either participate in the Federal Work-Study Program or work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible for SNAP,” but work-study is more likely to be offered at institutions whose students are less at risk of food insecurity.
In addition, work-study participants can receive SNAP benefits automatically – no matter how many hours they work – meaning they could work less and gain more.
With this in mind, researchers suggest, “policymakers may want to consider lowering the minimum number of off-campus work hours that are necessary for otherwise-eligible students to receive SNAP benefits.”