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Are college students eligible for government benefits programs?

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As the cost of college continues to rise, a considerable number of college students are being classified as food- or housing-insecure. However, government benefits programs, which exist to help the nation’s vulnerable pay for basic living expenses, have had a complicated relationship with college students. Reports of students from wealthy families being on food stamps or living in subsidized housing have led policymakers to exclude most college students from eligibility for these programs. However, there are exceptions for low-income and/or nontraditional students, and research suggests that college students who qualify for these programs are often unaware of the fact, indicating a need for increasing awareness.

Government benefits programs can be divided into four major categories: food, healthcare, housing, and financial assistance. Many of these programs place restrictions on college students’ participation, but, as mentioned earlier, there are exceptions that make these programs more accessible than one might think. This article discusses college students’ eligibility for four major government benefits programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8). Although this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the government benefits programs that are out there, the article takes a look at some of the largest programs currently in operation.

Can college students get welfare?

Although college students can receive welfare, their participation in higher education is limited by strict work requirements. Enacted in 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant is awarded by the federal government to the states, who use these funds, in addition to some of their own money, to operate programs that, among other goals, provide assistance to families in need. Although states have a considerable amount of freedom in operating these programs, they must, under federal law, require recipients to engage in work activities, and this work requirement limits recipients’ access to higher education in many states. Although vocational education, which includes professional certifications and associate degree programs, can count toward the federal TANF work participation rate, it is limited at the federal level to 12 months’ total participation, which isn’t long enough to complete many vocational education programs. In addition, the federal government treats other educational activities, including education directly related to employment, as noncore work activities, which are permitted only after participants have met the required 20 hours of core work activities. (As an exception, individuals under 20 can count noncore work activities as full participation.)

Although the work requirement doesn’t prevent TANF recipients from going to college, it does impose restrictions that make it more difficult for them to pursue higher education. For example, the state of Washington requires TANF recipients to take part in a WorkFirst activity for up to 30 hours a week if they want to keep getting TANF as a college student. The difficulty of managing a 30-hour work week in addition to one’s schoolwork has led critics to say that this policy effectively bars participants’ enrollment in higher education.

Because states operate their own TANF programs, there are important differences by state regarding participants’ access to higher education. Some states, recognizing that higher education is an important part of getting people on the road to economic self-sufficiency, have made efforts to encourage college enrollment among TANF recipients. Minnesota, for example, allows those receiving cash assistance from the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) unlimited participation in postsecondary education, among other educational activities, without requiring participation in other work activities. Similarly, Nebraska considers vocational education training and postsecondary education as state core work activities for up to 36 months for Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) recipients, and Pennsylvania allows students at community colleges up to 24 months to complete their degrees and credentials through the Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS) program.

To qualify for TANF, you must be a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant who has spent at least five years in the United States. (SNAP and Medicaid have the same restrictions on immigrant eligibility.) Refugees and asylees are exempt from the five-year ban as are members of the military and veterans (and their spouses and children). You can find more information on immigrants’ eligibility for SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, and CHIP in the issue brief by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Can college students get food stamps?

Although most college students are not eligible for food stamps, low-income and/or nontraditional students may qualify. In order to prevent students from wealthy families from being on food stamps, policymakers have heavily restricted college students’ participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) provides a detailed explanation of college students’ eligibility for SNAP. According to CLASP, “students enrolled at least half-time at an institution of higher education are not eligible for SNAP unless they meet one of the following exceptions:

  • Under age 18 or age 50 or older;
  • Parent caring for a child under age 6;
  • Parent caring for a child 6-11 years old who is unable to obtain child care to attend school and work;
  • Single parent caring for a child under 12 years old and enrolled full-time;
  • Working for pay at least 20 hours per week;
  • Receiving any work-study funds;
  • Receiving TANF benefits;
  • Unable to work because of a mental or physical disability; or
  • Enrolled in certain programs aimed at employment.”

Students who meet one of these exceptions are subject to the regular income and asset limits for SNAP eligibility. Under federal rules, a household (defined as individuals who live together and purchase and prepare food together) must have a gross monthly income (income before any of the program’s deductions are applied) at or below 130 percent of the poverty line and a net income (income after deductions are applied) at or below the poverty line. In addition, the household must have assets below $2,250 unless it includes an elderly or disabled member, in which case household assets must be below $3,500. Research suggests that college students who qualify for SNAP are often unaware of the fact, which is troubling given that approximately half of 2- and 4-year college students are food-insecure. This is a missed opportunity for many college students: a 2018 report by Young Invincibles found that 3 percent of all college students receive SNAP even though up to 18 percent may qualify.

SNAP benefits start at $192 per month for a household of one. To apply for SNAP, contact your local SNAP office as each state has its own application form. For more information on how to apply, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provides a helpful guideline. You can also check out the guide to SNAP eligibility and benefits by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as well as the Center for Law and Social Policy’s overview of SNAP for college students.

Can college students get Medicaid?

College students have several health insurance options, one of which is Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that provides health coverage to millions of Americans. Whether you qualify for Medicaid depends partly on your state, but even if you don’t qualify, there are other options. Here are the four main health insurance options for college students.


1. Medicaid

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 gave states the option to expand their Medicaid programs to cover all people with household incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Although most states have expanded their programs, seventeen states have yet to do so. If your state did not expand Medicaid, you must meet both the financial and non-financial eligibility criteria to qualify whereas if your state expanded Medicaid, you can qualify based on the financial eligibility criteria alone. Non-financial eligibility criteria, which vary from state to state, include age, disability status, and parenting status. For more information, check out this guide to Medicaid coverage in your state.


2. Coverage under your parent’s insurance plan

If you don’t qualify for Medicaid, don’t worry. You can get coverage under your parent’s insurance plan until you’re 26 years of age. Keep in mind that your parents must enroll you during the Open Enrollment Period or, if you qualify, during a Special Enrollment Period. (Medicaid doesn’t have an Open Enrollment Period—that is, you can apply for Medicaid any time of year.)


3. Student health plans

Student health plans, which are offered by colleges, universities, and other institutes of higher education, can be an easy, affordable way to get health coverage. They’re a great option if you attend a college or university in a different state than where your parents live as not all health insurance plans offer out-of-state coverage. Just make sure you’re aware of what your student health plan covers as some are more comprehensive than others.


4. Marketplace health plans

Another option if you’ll be living in a different state than your parents is to enroll in a Marketplace health plan. The Health Insurance Marketplace is a service that allows people to shop for their health plan. You must enroll during the Open Enrollment Period, but students who will be moving to a different state may be eligible for a Special Enrollment Period.

For more information on choosing the right coverage for you, healthcare.gov is a great resource.

Can college students live in subsidized housing?

Low-income college students can participate in the Housing Choice Vouchers program, also known as Section 8, if both they and their parents are income eligible. There are three main government programs that help low-income people access affordable housing: privately-owned subsidized housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, and Public Housing. Through the Housing Choice Vouchers program, individuals find their own housing and pay the difference between their actual rent and the amount of their housing subsidy, which gets paid directly to the landlord on behalf of the participating individual. Under federal law, students can only participate in the Housing Choice Vouchers program if both they and their parents are income eligible. Students who are (1) veterans, (2) married, (3) with a dependent child, or (4) age 24 or older are exempt from this restriction. Section 8 income limits vary depending on where you live and the number of people in your household (defined as individuals who live together). For example, the low income limit for a household of one in Mobile, Alabama is $33,500 while that in Waterbury, Connecticut is $50,350 for fiscal year 2018. Both you and your parents would need to pass this income eligibility test for you to qualify for Section 8 assistance.

According to a 2015 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD rules treat “students’ grant aid for costs beyond tuition, required fees, and required charges as income for the purpose of determining eligibility. That is, grant aid for educational expenses such as textbooks and supplies is counted as income.” This may put some college students in a difficult position as they may have to forego grant aid in order to fall within the income limit and remain eligible for Section 8. In addition, if a student whose family is receiving Section 8 assistance decides to go to college, he or she should be aware that “adult students who live with their parents are considered dependents only when they enroll full time. As a result, a student’s decision to drop a class and drop to part-time status can have significant ramifications for their family’s housing situation.”

To apply for Housing Choice Vouchers, contact your local public housing agency. Finally, although this article mainly focuses on Housing Choice Vouchers, other housing assistance programs, including Public Housing, are prospectively open to college students.

To sum up, although, government benefits programs may seem to exclude college students from participation, they make exceptions for low-income and/or nontraditional students, making these programs more accessible than one might think. Figuring out whether you’re eligible for a program can be daunting, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to research, and remember that there are resources to help you in your search.

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