How to Connect College Students with Public Benefits Programs


Recent surveys indicate that nearly a quarter of U.S. undergraduates are food insecure. Given that students who experience food insecurity are over 40 percent less likely to graduate from college, addressing basic needs insecurity is a critical issue in today’s higher education landscape.

Some students can seek support from public benefits programs, such as SNAP. However, a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that 57 percent of SNAP-eligible students—roughly 2 million learners—did not participate in the program. Researchers and policy advocates have identified multiple reasons for this low uptake, including the complexity of student eligibility requirements, which cause many students to simply assume they do not qualify.

Colleges and universities can play a key role in connecting college students with public benefits programs. By leveraging FAFSA data, offering application assistance as an on-campus resource, and generally creating a culture of awareness and support, institutions can support their most at-risk students in gaining access to benefits.

Support students through the application process

The public benefits application process can be complicated, slow, and fraught with bureaucratic hurdles. Institutions can increase the accessibility of public benefits by actively supporting their students through this process. In fact, some states now require that public universities hire benefits navigators—trained professionals fluent in the intricacies of the public benefits system, who can work individually with students to navigate the eligibility and application processes. But there is still a long way to go: a systematic search surveying over 400 randomly-selected US institutions found that only 18 percent offered food program screening as an identifiable campus resource in 2019.

Application support for public benefits can take many forms:

  • A resource website can be a valuable first step, directing students towards official resources for information about eligibility and application.
  • Designated benefits coordinators can offer personalized, professional support to students, helping them understand eligibility requirements and gather necessary documentation, or even offering active support through the screening process.
  • Peer coaches—funded for example through Federal Work-Study—can be a sustainable, flexible option for public benefits navigation support.
  • Some public institutions have partnered directly with state agencies to offer regular enrollment clinics on campus.
  • Many third-party organizations provide a wide range of basic needs resources targeted towards students, including public benefits coordination.

Leverage financial aid data

In a Dear Colleague Letter published in January of 2022, the Department of Education encouraged institutions to use FAFSA data to identify students who might be eligible for means-tested public benefits like SNAP, the Affordable Connectivity Program, or the Child Tax Credit. However, a 2023 survey of financial aid administrators found that just 27 percent of respondents conduct direct outreach to students about federal benefit programs. While some regulations on data-sharing will be impacted by the 2024-25 FAFSA simplification, institutions should work with the Department of Education (and other regulatory bodies) to make the best use of FAFSA data.

Cultivate a benefits-aware campus

Students face many barriers which prevent full utilization of public resources—from complex federal policies which are misaligned with the realities of the modern college student, to social stigma and biases which make students feel unworthy of aid. Small steps from colleges and universities can make a big difference for students in need:

  • Ensure that campus stores are approved for SNAP; qualifying for benefits is no use if students can’t use them easily.
  • Guarantee regular hours for Work-Study appointments to prevent lapses in eligibility for means-tested programs, which may require students to work a certain number of hours each week.
  • Educate faculty and staff about public benefits access and on-campus resources.

Public benefit programs can ease the financial burden for eligible students and allow them to be more successful in college. By coordinating access to these programs, postsecondary institutions can help mitigate the effects of basic needs insecurity in their communities.

May Helena Plumb is a social scientist committed to accessibility and equity in education. Prior to joining Trellis Strategies, she was a co-author of the Ticha Project, an interdisciplinary team of scholars who develop educational resources for Indigenous learners, using research as a tool to build community and achieve stakeholder goals.  

At Trellis, May leverages her research experience to support data-driven solutions for institutions of higher education to foster student success. May holds an M.A. in Linguistics from The University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the same department.