College Students’ Siloed Safety Net
Navigating Sources of Aid amid a Crisis
Adam Ramsdell finally qualified for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in February. Before then, working 18 hours a week on top of his full class load at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Virginia, wasn’t enough. That’s because program rules require students like Ramsdell—childless, able-bodied, and without work-study—who are taking more than a half load of classes to work 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP. People who aren’t students don’t need to meet that same hour threshold as long as they meet income and resource requirements.
Ramsdell, a 40-year-old Harrisonburg resident, worked for Aramark at James Madison University (JMU) as a cashier supervisor at the on-campus Steak ’n Shake. Once he was sure he had his classwork set and extra hours wouldn’t hinder his education, he asked to add another couple hours to his schedule to qualify for SNAP because he was struggling to pay for healthy food each week. Starting March 4, Ramsdell received $65 a month in SNAP benefits. It wasn’t enough to cover all his food costs, but it helped.
But then COVID-19 hit. While Blue Ridge and JMU were on spring break in mid-March, the virus started spreading throughout the country, and both schools moved classes online for the remainder of the spring semester. Without students on JMU’s campus who needed food service, Ramsdell found himself out of a job. Aramark said he could return in August when students returned, but in the eyes of the federal government, Ramsdell was now back where he had been most of the semester: a student who couldn’t meet the SNAP work requirements.
“Because I’m no longer working, I don’t know if they’re going to say, ‘Well, now you’re not working, so you’re not eligible for food stamps.’ But this is when I need it the most,” Ramsdell said on March 20, the afternoon he found out Aramark had laid him off.
Students eligible for federal, state, and campus benefits, particularly community college students, often encounter a tangled net of disconnected programs, Urban Institute researchers found. To fill gaps left by federal and state programs, Virginia community colleges are using campus-based assistance to ease food insecurity and provide emergency funds in moments of crisis. But not all campuses offer these services, and their prevalence and capacity vary across the state.
Even in a time of crisis, social safety net supports still have extra requirements for students, leaving people like Ramsdell, who need immediate assistance, to depend on a slow, multistep, potentially unequitable response. To help students meet their basic needs during the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is allocating emergency money to higher education institutions for their administrations to distribute to students how they deem best. But that’s not a position colleges are used to holding.
“Unemployment responds quickly, SNAP responds relatively quickly, but the higher education system really isn’t designed to be a safety net in the same way,” said Kristin Blagg, a senior research associate in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. “We’re now seeing what happens when we try to do that.”
Reimagining the typical college student
Ramsdell struggled in school throughout his childhood largely because of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which went undiagnosed until his senior year of high school. Some of his teachers created a plan to turn his grades around after his diagnosis, but it was too little, too late: the private Christian boarding school Ramsdell attended asked him to leave, partially because of his grades and partially because senior faculty learned of his sexuality, leaving him without a high school diploma. For years, Ramsdell was afraid of education, feeling that all his struggles were his fault.
After leaving high school, Ramsdell worked various jobs, including managerial roles at a financial consulting firm and data research facilities. But after he was laid off from his executive retail management job during a round of budget cuts in 2014, he struggled to find a new position. Hiring managers continually told him he was either overqualified or undereducated. Finally, in 2017, he worked up the courage to get his GED, which he earned quickly. Soon after, he applied to Blue Ridge Community College. Now, at 40, Ramsdell is on track to graduate from Blue Ridge next spring with an associate’s degree in human services (Intro to Social Work) and transfer to JMU to obtain his bachelor’s degree in social work.
For most policymakers, Ramsdell probably doesn’t resemble the stereotypical first-time college student. He’s older and independent, not a teenager living in a dorm and relying on his parents’ support. But Ramsdell represents a common college student demographic.
Nearly 27 percent of all undergraduates were older than 25 in fall 2017, and 49.3 percent of students qualified as financially independent for the 2015–16 academic year. Nationwide, 17 percent of dependent undergraduates and 42 percent of independent undergraduates have household incomes that put them below the federal poverty level. And for the 2016–17 academic year, 31 percent of undergraduate students received Pell grants, which give financial aid to students in need.
“If you’re a policymaker and you’re well off and you’re thinking about your teenager who’s a college student and that’s your baseline of what a college student looks like, it’s not going to lead you to a fair idea of how to solve anything,” said Macy Rainer, a research assistant in the Center on Education Data and Policy. “The average college student doesn’t look like a policymaker’s teenager or what they looked like as a college student.”
It’s not the size of the net but the size of the holes
Before the pandemic, Ramsdell was one of the millions of college students nationwide who was from a SNAP-eligible household. In Virginia, just under 7 percent of community college students received SNAP benefits for the 2015–16 school year, even though nearly 10 percent of all Virginia residents receive them.
To qualify for SNAP benefits, students ages 18 to 49 who attend school at least half time (i.e., take six credit hours or more) must meet at least one of seven criteria: have a disability, receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, participate in federal work-study, work at least 20 hours a week, care for a dependent younger than 6, care for a dependent younger than 12 without sufficient child care, or enroll in designated employment training programs, which tend to be limited short-term programs, not traditional degrees. For Ramsdell, the only criterion he can potentially meet is working 20 hours a week.
“Because I’m no longer working, I don’t know if they’re going to say, ‘Well, now you’re not working, so you’re not eligible for food stamps.’ But this is when I need it the most.”
In theory, the Federal Work-Study Program would allow Ramsdell to work on campus and reach SNAP eligibility, but work-study funds are not distributed equally to institutions, in part because the distribution formula favors older, established colleges. Only 1 percent of Virginia community college students received work-study, Urban researchers found, compared with 17 percent of students at private colleges in Virginia.
And with the pandemic shutting down many other job opportunities, students like Ramsdell are left with an impossible choice: focus on education but lack money for food, or work enough hours to meet SNAP eligibility but compromise their education.
“It’s like a blanket that either covers your head or covers your toes,” Blagg said. “You can’t be both working enough to be eligible for the aid that you need and be a student effectively, so you’ve got people who are caught in the middle.”
Responding to the crisis and building resilience
Amid the pandemic, schools are trying to step up services to help students in need. Blue Ridge adapted some of its existing programs like Beyond the Blue, the human services club at Blue Ridge, to switch its Lunch2Go program from a daily pickup for students on campus to a weekly drive-through. For the first two Mondays that the college was shut down, Beyond the Blue staffers handed out seven free lunches to qualifying students who came.
Ramsdell picked up lunches at the Lunch2Go program the first week classes shut down, but once Virginia issued its stay-at-home order, the program shut down. Blue Ridge also disseminated a 13-page resource booklet for students to find and use local community resources, including those for food, utility, and unemployment assistance.
But not every community college is taking the same approach. Cathy Webb, a 58-year-old student at another Virginia school, Reynolds Community College in Richmond, hasn’t yet heard anything from the college about potential assistance, and her $1,500 grant funds for living experiences are on hold. Webb, who has three young kids at home, previously used the on-campus Single Stop food pantry, but because of the stay-at-home order, she has now found a pantry close to her home that provides a month’s supply of food. The disparate responses from different colleges illustrate the limitations of the current “patchwork” system, Urban researchers said.
To address the gaps in that system, some states have petitioned to expand coverage amid the COVID-19 pandemic by asking the government to waive the additional student eligibility requirements. But the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service agency denied the request.
That leaves the $6.2 billion allocated to higher education institutions through the CARES Act as the primary form of federal assistance many students will receive during the COVID-19 crisis. Each college was allocated funds through a formula that was weighted toward full-time, Pell-eligible students but also considered total population and part-time students enrolled before the pandemic. Blue Ridge was allocated $1.86 million; Reynolds was allocated $4.15 million.
To receive those funds, colleges must apply through grants.gov, but many institutions waited, hoping to receive more guidance from the government before applying. Blue Ridge submitted its application on April 20, according to Megan Hartless, the school’s financial aid coordinator. The Virginia Community College System had advised the school to wait to apply until there was a solid plan in place for distributing the aid.
Originally, Blue Ridge planned to use Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data to target students with the greatest need while setting aside small amounts for a pool of noncredit students and other students who don’t fit into the model, Hartless said. But the US Department of Education released additional guidance after Blue Ridge submitted its application that stipulated the funds would be available only to Title IV–eligible students, so Blue Ridge scrapped the idea for the smaller pools. The aid could be given only to students with a FAFSA on file, which excludes undocumented students.
“The average college student doesn’t look like a policymaker’s teenager or what they looked like as a college student.”
Ramsdell will receive aid from Blue Ridge because he qualifies for and receives the maximum Pell grant, but other students who have also lost jobs or income but did not submit a FAFSA will not receive aid. Blue Ridge received CARES Act funds in late April and began disbursing aid to eligible students on May 7.
“We tried to do the best we could to identify the people who were going to need it the most,” Hartless said.
But how can policymakers establish a better long-term safety net that doesn’t leave students behind?
“An avenue to fix this would be to expand coverage for social safety nets and to make it easier for students that have need to qualify for these benefits,” said Kelia Washington, a research analyst in the Center on Education Data and Policy.
Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have legislated a workaround for community college students by expanding the definition of “career and technical education” to include community college courses. That way, students in those states can meet the SNAP eligibility criteria simply by enrolling in classes. Federal policymakers are also trying to address gaps in the system, like with the introduction of the College Student Hunger Act of 2019, which would expand students’ eligibility for SNAP, in part by decreasing the work requirement to 10 hours a week.
Students are left to face an uncertain future
Within a week and a half of losing his job, Ramsdell learned that he had qualified for $75 a week in unemployment insurance for up to 20 weeks, that he would receive $125 in extra SNAP benefits for March, and that his SNAP benefits would increase to $194 for April because of his recent unemployment. He also received the $600 weekly unemployment supplement once that aid package was passed. But once April ended, so did Ramsdell’s SNAP eligibility.
Without a job and under Virginia’s stay-at-home order, Ramsdell worries about paying his bills the longer the shutdown drags on. The unemployment money plus the supplement covers most of his bills and expenses, including his $35 phone bill, a $110-a-month storage unit, and monthly car and car insurance payments. For the end of March and April, he used his last bit of savings, and he expected that the government stimulus check plus his tax refund could help with May expenses. But then a car accident meant all his stimulus money had to go to the unexpected car repairs. Making matters worse, his rent will go up another $200 on June 1.
“It’s like a blanket that either covers your head or covers your toes. You can’t be both working enough to be eligible for the aid that you need and be a student effectively, so you’ve got people who are caught in the middle.”
Ramsdell initially planned to enroll in one class this summer and work a paid internship with a program that prepares middle and high school students for college. The internship still wants him to work, but the position pays only $12 an hour for up to 15 hours a week, which would cause him to risk the safety net benefits he can access. He plans to ask the internship coordinators if he can intern for free so that he can stay on unemployment benefits. But either way, as a continuing student, he still couldn’t access SNAP benefits unless he dropped out of school entirely or convinced the internship to allow him to work at least 20 hours a week.
With a recession looming, Ramsdell’s struggle to qualify for SNAP benefits could leave him on unstable ground. Blagg and other Urban researchers found that students attending two-year colleges are more likely to be food insecure than other adults, and after the Great Recession in 2008, two-year college students’ food insecurity rates rose dramatically, doubling the rate increase nationwide.
The CARES Act aid could be the answer to Ramsdell’s financial questions come June, but the amount and timing is still uncertain. For now, he’s trying to keep a positive attitude and focus on maintaining his grades. He’s struggled with the switch to online classes because of his ADHD, calling online classes his “kryptonite.” After dealing with his car accident and other family challenges, he’s started to fall behind in his classes. He’s working with his professors to allow extended time for completing his assignments and is still determined to maintain straight A’s this semester.
“I just kind of want to take it one day at a time,” Ramsdell said. “I don’t want to overthink things. I tend to be an overthinker. I’m planning to just keep positive, eat healthy, and hydrate as best I can.”