The Role of Social Safety-Net Programs in College Student Success

Jennifer Hogg, Dr. Johanna Lacoe, and Dr. Jesse Rothstein

College student shopping for groceries

College students across the country struggle to meet their basic needs, interfering with their ability to focus on school. Economic downturns and times of uncertainty can exacerbate this problem. For example, in California, enrollment in the state’s community college system declined by 18% during the COVID-19 pandemic. The California community college system is the largest system of higher education in the world, serving around 2 million students annually and creating educational and career advancement opportunities for California’s diverse student population. Nearly 70% of its students are from low-income backgrounds, and over half are students of color, populations that were disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

Safety-net benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have the potential to help students meet their basic needs. During the pandemic, Congress temporarily expanded access among college students, potentially providing many more with needed financial relief. But data limitations have hampered previous efforts to measure how many college students are eligible to participate in programs like SNAP, how many actually enroll, and which students are missing out. There is also a need for more evidence to understand how to best connect students to benefits for which they are eligible, and to measure how participating in safety-net programs can impact learner success.

The California Policy Lab (CPL) at the University of California, Berkeley, is working with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, the California Student Aid Commission, and the California Department of Social Services to fill these knowledge gaps. Professor and CPL Faculty Director Jesse Rothstein and CPL Research Director Johanna Lacoe are leading a multi-year project with support from the Institute of Education Sciences and the Spencer Foundation titled The Role of Social Safety Net Programs in College Student Success. In 2022, CPL kicked off this project with a publication detailing California college student participation in SNAP (called CalFresh in California), in the years leading up to the pandemic. During the 2019-2020 school year, 230,000 California community college students (10.2%) were enrolled in the program, compared to around 14% of the general population of California. In 2023-24, CPL will release updated participation rates that include additional school years impacted by the pandemic, estimates of the share of students who were likely eligible but did not participate, and the impact participating in SNAP had on learner outcomes like GPA and degree completion.

Creating a more detailed understanding of SNAP participation among students will help policymakers, advocates, campus basic needs staff, and county social services agencies understand how large the take-up gap is, where to target outreach, and what obstacles may prevent otherwise eligible students from receiving these benefits. To support this work, the California Policy Lab also plans to partner with these stakeholders to pilot and test outreach strategies to identify best practices for connecting eligible students to benefits. As an example, CPL partnered with the California Student Aid Commission, the California Department of Social Services, and The People Lab to test the efficacy of email and postcard outreach to students newly eligible for SNAP under a pandemic-era expansion to student eligibility. The findings from these experiments suggest repeated outreach, multiple methods (emails and postcards), and simplified messaging were more effective at getting students to apply for SNAP benefits.

The research from this project will lay the groundwork for public officials and higher education institutions to better support students’ access to safety-net programs during this critical recovery period and beyond, and for future education research to better understand the role these programs can play in student outcomes like graduation.

If you would like to learn more about this project, you can visit the project website or reach out to Research Manager Jennifer Hogg at


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