Research Report A Tangled Net: Food Insecurity and Supports for Low-Income Students in Virginia's Community Colleges
Kristin Blagg, Macy Rainer, Kelia Washington
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Students enrolled in two-year colleges tend to live in households that experience food insecurity at rates higher than national levels. Food insecurity—and broader financial insecurity—can lead to negative outcomes, affecting mental and physical health and academic outcomes. Several federal, state, and campus resources aim to reduce financial insecurity among college students, but students may lack access to a single, comprehensive set of supports and instead must navigate a tangled safety net. In this report, we examine policies in Virginia to understand how federal, state, and campus resources interact.


Nationwide, about 20 percent of dependent undergraduates and 42 percent of independent students have household incomes that put them below the federal poverty level. During the 2015–16 school year, about 13 percent of college students—and 16 percent of associate’s degree students—were from households that reported enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A recent Government Accountability Office report estimated that about 2.2 million low-income college students reported that they were from a household receiving SNAP and an additional 1.8 million students were potentially eligible but did not report receiving benefits.

An analysis of administrative records shows that about 7 percent of Virginia community college students received SNAP in 2015–16. These students were more likely to be people of color and female. Over a similar period, about 9.8 percent of Virginia residents received SNAP.

The Tangled Net   

Our report highlights some of the hurdles students, particularly community college students, face in realizing the benefits of federal, state, and campus programs:

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid verification process and misunderstandings about applications and eligibility could hinder access to federal Pell grants. Further, many community colleges, in Virginia and nationally, do not mention loans in financial aid packages, even though students are eligible.
  • Virginia administers two state grant aid programs for residents to help cover tuition and book costs: the Virginia Commonwealth Award and the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program. Community college students tend to rely more on the Virginia Commonwealth Award. The average award amount for community college students tends to be lower in both absolute value and in share of costs covered than for students attending four-year schools, and not all students with need receive awards.
  • Students who are income-eligible for SNAP automatically qualify for benefits if they participate in work-study, yet community college students are the least likely to receive work-study funding. To qualify without work-study, students must work a minimum of 20 hours (or meet other criteria).
  • To fill the gaps left by federal and state programs, many Virginia community colleges have adopted campus-based strategies, such as building on-campus food pantries, providing pathways to external resources, and setting up emergency grant programs. But advertisement and implementation of these services vary widely by campus location.

Next Steps

Better linking federal, state, and campus financial aid and food insecurity programs could improve outcomes for low-income students. More information—particularly, more data linking these systems—is needed to better understand how financial aid, safety net benefits, and institutional supports come together to support students’ basic needs and promote success.

Research Areas Education Social safety net
Tags Higher education Welfare and safety net programs Hunger and food assistance Financial knowledge and capability School-based partnerships and services Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Community colleges
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy