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February 08, 2021

Pennsylvania expands SNAP eligibility to qualifying college students

As pandemic continues, new guidelines make benefits more accessible to prevent hunger

Government Students
SNAP benefits College Karolina Grabowska/

Pennsylvania college students may now be eligible to receive SNAP benefits under an expansion of eligibility intended to prevent hunger during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Qualifying college students in Pennsylvania will be able to obtain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits under a temporary change in eligibility announced Monday by the Department of Human Services. 

The food insecurity program will be open to college students who qualify based on their families’ incomes. Normally, they would not be eligible due to their status as students, but the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated the need for students to receive more assistance.  

"Our ways of life and routines have changed to keep ourselves and our communities safe from this virus," DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said. "Jobs that students would normally work on campuses or around their schools may have reduced hours or are not an option anymore, meaning that students and families with more limited resources may be struggling even more to meet their most essential needs."

The federal government's normal SNAP eligibility guidelines bar students between the ages of 18 and 49 from receiving benefits if they are enrolled in college at least half-time. 

The only exemptions are if the student works an average of 20 hours or more per week, participates in a state or federal work study program, has a disability or is a parent of a child under age six. Even if students reside at home with parents who receive SNAP benefits, they are not counted in the household unless they meet one of the exemptions.

The federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 extends SNAP eligibility to college students who are eligible for a state or federal work study program, regardless of whether they are actually participating, or students who have an estimated family contribution of $0 on their federal student aid determination. 

The new eligibility will remain in place until 30 days after the public health emergency ends. The Biden Administration has advised that the declaration most likely will remain in place at least until the end of 2021. States will have 60 days-notice before it ends. 

New SNAP eligibility guidelines can be found at the the DHS website and applications for benefits can be made through the state's Compass portal

"Food insecurity is yet another issue that learners are facing during the pandemic, and should not create further barriers to academic success," said Tanya I. Garcia, deputy secretary for Pennsylvania's Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education. 

A federal Government Accountability Office report from January 2019 found that at least one in three college students sometimes lack enough food to eat. More than two-thirds of college students don't fall into the typical model for someone seeking a degree in higher education. They be may financially independent, work at least part time, enroll in and stay in college at a later age, or have dependent children.

Enrollment for SNAP benefits in Pennsylvania has increased by 4.9% since February 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Enrollment has increased by 84,389, bringing the statewide total to 1,821,848. 

"In a time when so many are struggling, we are hopeful that this will be another resource that we can extend to families who are feeling this economic strain most acutely," Miller said. "We urge Congress to make this change permanent, so that no student has to go hungry again."