The NCSL Blog


By Rosa Rada

Faced with rising costs for books, supplies and tuition, today’s college students often skip meals to pay for their education.

Financial Coach Joel Philistin, who helped set up the food scholarship at Houston Community College, in Houston on Friday, March 23, 2018. Michael Stravato for The Texas TribuneIn 2016, 48 percent of U.S. college students reported experiencing food insecurity in the past 30 days. Food insecurity—defined as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food—is prevalent at both two-year and four-year institutions and disproportionately affects students of color and first-generation college students.

College Students Are Working

Rising costs mean that an increasing number of students must balance both a job and school to pay for basic college expenses, such as books, supplies and tuition. In 2015, about 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students worked at least 30 hours a week. That year, of all working learners, 1 in 4 were both full-time students and full-time employees.

State Policy Options

Improving Access to SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest and most effective anti-hunger safety net in the United States. Of all college students, only 18 percent are eligible for SNAP and only 3 percent receive benefits. This means that states are losing out on $4.2 billion in federal resources that could be provided to hungry college students.

Most college students are not eligible for SNAP unless they work at least 20 hours per week or receive a federal work study grant. Of college students that are eligible, many do not apply because of complex guidelines and paperwork or lack of awareness.

To ensure that SNAP reaches more hungry college students, states could:

  • Align SNAP eligibility with need-based financial aid eligibility.
  • Allow college enrollment to count toward SNAP work requirements, removing the work requirement for students enrolled full-time.
  • Simplify SNAP eligibility requirements.
  • Remove logistical barriers to filing a SNAP application.

Beyond improving access to SNAP benefits, states could assist colleges and universities in developing multifaceted approaches to combating hunger. To support colleges and universities in addressing hunger on their own campuses, states could:

  • Require colleges and universities to convene task forces to address student hunger.
  • Develop criteria for colleges and universities to be designated “hunger-free campuses.”
  • Incentivize changes that would allow for SNAP purchases to be made at on-campus retailers.
  • Provide funding or technical assistance for the creation of on-campus food pantries, food recovery programs, or dining center meal donation programs.

State Action on College Student Hunger

State legislators have begun to pay attention to the widespread issue of hunger on college campuses and its consequences for student success. Several states have acted to improve food availability and access for hungry college students:


Since 2016, California passed legislation that encourages on-campus retailers to accept SNAP benefits, incentivizes the establishment of on-campus food pantries and clarifies educational policies to improve student access to the SNAP program.

In the past two years, California introduced legislation that would award the designation of “hunger-free campus” to colleges and universities that help students enroll in SNAP along with legislation that would reimburse colleges and universities that provide free student meal plans to financial aid recipients.

New York

In 2018, New York’s governor proposed legislation that would ensure healthy food options are available on all college campuses and require all public college/university campuses to have on-campus food pantries.


In 2017, Illinois introduced legislation that would align SNAP eligibility with need-based financial aid eligibility for part-time students.

College and University Action

Ohio University

In 2018, Ohio University took steps to address hunger on-campus by enabling one of their retailers to accept SNAP benefits. The university also participates in food recovery, collection, and donation programs, and national hunger awareness campaigns.

Arizona State University

In 2016, Arizona State University’s student government launched a voucher program for student meals.

Rosa Rada is the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow for NCSL’s Hunger Partnership.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.