In a report published Jan. 9, GAO estimates that approximately 7.3 million students pursuing higher education qualified as low-income, which is the most common risk factor for food insecurity, and of these about 5.5 million likely also were grappling with at least one additional risk factor for food insecurity, such as being a first-generation college student, receiving aid or being a single parent, according to GAO.
Of these, 3.3 million students likely would have qualified to receive federally funded aid to purchase food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly known as food stamps – and yet 57% did not report participating in SNAP in 2016, GAO notes.
The top reason for not using SNAP was that students didn’t know they qualified or didn’t know how to navigate the system, GAO adds.
Without adequate nutrition, students may experience decreased academic performance, negative mental health or be forced to choose between paying their tuition and staying in school or buying food and dropping out, according to GAO.
These outcomes also threaten substantial government investments. Considering the US federal government spent more $122 billion in grants, loans and work study funds through federal student aid programs in 2017 to help make college accessible, GAO argues FNS should take additional steps to protect that investment by also helping students secure necessary nutrition to improve the chance they graduate.
Two key recommendations
Specifically, GAO recommends FNS should clarify on its website SNAP eligibility requirements and make that information more accessible to students as well as colleges and state SNAP agencies.
In addition, GAO argues, FNS should coordinate with regional offices to collect and share different approaches taken at the state level to assist eligible college students access SNAP.
For example, it should share strategies such as those implemented in eleven states to clarify for third-party partners college student eligibility rules for benefits and expanding the list of college programs that qualify students for an exception under the employment and training provision.
In a separate report published Dec. 20, GAO also took the US Department of Agriculture to task for not collecting better data on student participation in such employment and training programs to qualify for SNAP. According to that report, less than 1% of SNAP recipients participated in these programs in 2016.
The more recent report also found other states are stepping up outreach efforts at local colleges and developing employment and training services to bring more students to SNAP, GAO found.
FNS officials partially agreed with these recommendations, but argued that the agency already has “sufficient guidance in place for states to provide further information to colleges,” according to a response included in the GAO report.
GAO, however, countered that it still believes additional action is necessary.