NAICU Washington Update

Congress Focuses Attention on Student Health and Food Insecurity

August 04, 2019

Hunger, mental health, housing, and other basic student needs are barriers to completion that colleges are working hard to address.  As Congress delves more deeply into the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, the challenges facing institutions and students with regard to these issues are gaining increased attention.  As a result, several pieces of legislation have recently been introduced in Congress to provide the necessary student support and campus resources needed to help address these concerns.

Student Mental Health
The Higher Education Mental Health Act of 2019, introduced by Rep. David Trone (D-MD) in the House and Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) in the Senate, establishes a national commission to examine mental health concerns for students, assess the campus challenges, and propose recommendations to ensure campus mental health services have accurate information on student mental health issues. The ultimate goal of the national commission, named the Advisory Commission on Serving and Supporting Students with Mental Health Disabilities in Institutions of Higher Education, is to help students get the support they need, stay in school, and complete their degrees. 

The commission is charged with looking at the availability and effectiveness of mental health services on campuses.  It will also assess the policies and procedures that help or hinder educational opportunities, like reasonable accommodations, leave and disciplinary policies, the use of protected health information within a campus, and the impact on student academic performance.

Broadly, the commission will be made up of members representing the federal government and higher education.  More specifically, members will include Department of Education officials, including representatives from the offices of postsecondary education, special education, and civil rights; representatives from the Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights; and representatives from the National Council on Disability.  Nongovernment commission members will include higher education personnel professionals specializing in students with disabilities; higher education mental health advocates; college and university counseling directors; college presidents or other administrative leaders; and family members of current or former college students with mental health disabilities. 

The bill also calls for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a similar study.

Substance Misuse
Congress has proposed two bills seeking to address substance misuse on campus.  Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the Healthier Students for Stronger Campuses Act, which would provide grants to institutions of higher education to prevent substance misuse among students, and provide prevention and treatment methods.  The Campus Prevention and Services for Students Act, a bill similar to Sen. Tester’s, was introduced in the House by Rep. Trone.

Student Hunger and Food Insecurity
Student hunger has been an increasing concern on campuses across the country, no matter what type or size the institution.  The College and University Food Bank Alliance is aware of over 300 food pantries at colleges and universities across the country.  After a December 2018 GAO Report entitled “Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits,” noted that there could be as many as 30 percent of college students without enough food, there has been increased interest in a legislative response to the issue from Members of Congress.

To date the following bills have been introduced to address hunger on campus:

College Student Hunger Act of 2019 (introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Al Lawson (D-FL)).  This bill proposes to expand access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka “food stamps”) for college students and creates a demonstration program to test SNAP delivery methods on college campuses. Specifically, the bill would:
  • Override the regulation that prohibits residential students with partial campus meal plans to be eligible for SNAP;
  • Lower the work requirement for SNAP eligibility from 20 hours to 10 hours per week;
  • Add additional exceptions to the student ban, making students who are Pell eligible, zero-EFC, or independent eligible for SNAP.  This is not a blanket “independent student” exception, however.  The exception is only for those students who are homeless, in foster care, are veterans, have dependents, or are unaccompanied youth. 
This bill has been referred to the Agriculture Committees, not the Education Committees, as it narrowly addresses SNAP eligibility, and does not amend HEA.  NAICU has endorsed this bill, and has signed on to a higher education community letter in support.

Closing the College Hunger Gap Act of 2019 (introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT)).  This bill requires the Secretary of Education to add questions to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey about food and housing insecurity and amends the HEA to ensure students who have a “zero-EFC” are informed that they may be eligible for SNAP benefits. 

Supporting Transparency to Overcome Poverty (STOP) Campus Hunger Act (introduced by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH)). This bill amends the HEA to require institutions of higher education to disseminate information to students about: 1) student eligibility guidance for SNAP; 2) state and local agencies that administer SNAP; and 3) food pantries or food assistance services available for students.

Campus Hunger Reduction Act of 2019 (introduced by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA)).  This bill proposes to include institutions of higher education in community food projects, such as regional food banks or campus food pantries. 

Basic Assistance for Students in College (BASIC) Act (introduced by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)).  This bill requires the Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Services to develop and implement a data sharing agreement to identify college students who may be eligible for SNAP, SSI, TANF, WIC, Medicaid, section 8 housing assistance, and any other federal means-tested benefit program that qualifies under the HEA simplified needs test. The bill also creates one-year planning and 5-year implementation grants to institutions to support the basic needs of students, to include food, housing, transportation, child care, health care, and technology. Priority is given to institutions with at least 25 percent Pell Grant enrollment, HBCUs, and minority-serving institutions.

As Congress continues work on HEA reauthorization, additional bills on these and other topics related to student health and basic needs will likely be considered.

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