College Student Hunger



Alternative TextIn 2016, nearly half (48 percent) of U.S. college students reported experiencing food insecurity in the past 30 days. Twenty-two percent of these students experienced very low levels of food security. 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.

Today's College Student

The nature of who attends college and what it takes to obtain a college education has changed dramatically over the past several decades. Pursuing a higher education is no longer something reserved only for elites—more Americans are attending college than ever before. College students today are older, more experienced in work, and more socioeconomically and racially diverse than their peers of past decades. While higher education is democratizing, the costs of attending have skyrocketed: From 1987 to 2017, the cost of tuition at public four-year institutions rose 213 percent and the cost of tuition at private four-year institutions rose 129 percent.

Facing the rising costs of books, supplies, and tuition, today’s college students often skip meals to pay for their education. Food insecurity can seriously harm a student’s ability to achieve academic success. In 2016, of food insecure students, 32 percent believed that hunger or housing problems had an impact on their education. Of those students, 55 percent reported that these problems caused them to not buy a required textbook; 53 percent reported missing a class; and 25 percent reported dropping a class.

College Students Are Working

Despite prevailing assumptions, the typical college student is not a recent high school graduate who lives in a dormitory and is supported by their parents. In fact, in 2013, fewer than 1 in 4 students could be categorized as having parents who were able to pay all their college expenses.

The rising cost of college education means 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. In 2016, 56 percent of food insecure students reported having a paying job, with 38 percent working 20 hours or more per week.

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 who 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.

Support Colleges and Universities in Addressing Hunger On Campus

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 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 efforts to encourage colleges and universities to address hunger, without substantial financial or logistical support, may prove challenging. For example, for an on-campus retailer to be authorized to accept SNAP benefits, they must consistently stock certain staple foods or derive at least half of their sales from certain staple foods. Once a retailer is authorized to accept SNAP benefits, they must obtain and pay for the necessary equipment and services themselves. These barriers may be prohibitive for retailers. States can play a role in ensuring that such barriers do not limit on-campus resources for hungry college students.

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 on student success. Several states have acted to improve food availability and access for hungry college students:


  • In 2016, California passed legislation (AB-1747) to encourage on-campus restaurants and cafeterias to accept CalFresh (SNAP in California) benefits and to provide designated funds for on-campus food pantries.
  • In 2017, California passed legislation (AB-214) to clarify educational policies to improve student access to the CalFresh program.
  • In 2017, California introduced legislation (AB-0453) that would award the designation of “hunger-free campus” to institutions with employees dedicated to helping ensure that students have the information that they need to enroll in the CalFresh program.
  • In 2018, California introduced legislation (SB-1275) that would reimburse public postsecondary educational institutions that provide student meal plans at no cost to students attending more than part-time and who are Cal Grant (California state-funded student financial aid) recipients.

New York

  • In 2018, New York’s governor proposed legislation that would ensure that healthy food options are available on all college campuses and require all public college/university campuses to either provide physical food pantries on-campus or enable students to receive food through a separate, stigma-free arrangement. The Governor proposes a $1 million state investment for implementation of this program.


  • In 2017, Illinois introduced legislation (SB-0351) 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 is taking a multi-faceted approach to addressing college student hunger by pairing expansion of SNAP use on-campus with food recovery, collection, and donation programs and participation in national hunger awareness campaigns.

Arizona State University

In 2016, Arizona State University’s student government began a voucher program using $10,000 from the university’s housing fund. Hungry students can go to the dean’s office to receive a voucher for one or two meals. If they need more long-term assistance, the office will connect them to the university’s on-campus food pantries or help them find other resources, such as SNAP.

Written by Rosa Rada, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow for the NCSL Hunger Partnership, April 2018. For more information, visit the Hunger and Nutrition homepage or contact Ann Morse, NCSL Hunger Partnership director.